Julia Zhang is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at The Ohio State University (OSU), where she earned her Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering. She is an expert in alternating current electric machine design, drive modeling and control, permanent magnet machines and partial discharge in electric machines. She has led OSU on federal and state-funded research projects via the Ohio Federal Research Network (OFRN), operated by Parallax Advanced Research headquartered in Dayton, Ohio. To recognize the International Women and Girls in Science Day, observed on February 11, Zhang sat down with the OFRN to reflect on her career as a woman in science and the mindset she cultivated to achieve her science-based dreams.
At a young age, Zhang excelled in physics and math and was encouraged by her father – a power-plant technician – to pursue electrical engineering in academia. Zhang attended the Nanjiang University of Astronautics and Aeronautics in Nanjiang, China – Zhang’s home city – where she worked in laboratories with other graduate students under the direction of Professor Zhiquan Deng.
“It was Professor Deng who recognized my aptitude and hard work in the subject,” Zhang said. “He encouraged me to pursue a PhD program. That push exposed me to the world of research and helped me develop an unwavering belief in myself.”
With the support of her family and Professor Deng, Zhang pursued a PhD in Electrical Engineering at the OSU in Columbus, Ohio where she became an advisee of Dr. Longya Xu, who, along with Dr. Mike Benzakein, connected her with the OFRN.
According to Zhang, “A lot of professors from the OSU Center for High Performance Power Electronics and Aerospace Engineering were already collaborating with the OFRN and one, who was a principal investigator on an OFRN-funded research project, moved on to another university, leaving a gap to fill. My name came up to fill that spot, and I agreed to get involved. I’ve since been working with the OFRN on two rounds of federal and state-funded research projects for which I’ve received tremendous support from Dr. Jin Wang of the OSU.”
Zhang’s OFRN research project is “Brushless Doubly-fed Machine and Drive Systems for Aviation Application", which was developed in collaboration with Safran Electrical & Power and the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) in Ohio to develop high-speed brushless doubly fed machines for aviation propulsion application using a direct current distribution power system. OSU led the electromagnetic design of the electric machine, power converter and drive system control algorithm. This new propulsion architecture allows a highly efficient energy conversion from the turbines to the propulsors and a significant size and weight reduction of the power converters, resulting in aircraft fuel savings.
Zhang is one of a few women among her peers working on OFRN-funded research projects. OFRN projects are selected based on open solicitation rounds for which qualifying researchers can apply.
“Due to the nature of my industry - high-voltage engineering - it is not unusual that I am one of a few women in any given research group due to its dangerous nature. Also, although, power engineering is a traditional field in electrical engineering, more students are looking into pursuing information technology as a career field, so my career field is becoming less saturated,” said Zhang.
According to an article by Altogether Society of Women Engineers, only 13% of engineers are women and only 26% of computer scientists are women. Over 32% of women switch out of STEM degree programs in college, and only 30% of women who earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering are still working in engineering 20 years later.
What keeps her motivated on her pursuit is to make her childhood dreams a reality. “Originally, I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but growing up in China, it was nearly impossible for girls to become fighter pilots. Once I made it to the U.S., I got to fulfill my dream in a different way, by doing the research and engineering that support flight”, Zhang said.
In addition to research, Zhang works with students to drive innovation in the industry. “My professors before me positively influenced the way I think about the discipline,” Zhang said. “They showed me how to think through a problem and be innovative in finding a solution. That influence made me think that maybe one day I would also become a professor and, so, I did. I pay it forward now and support my students with positive influence, and I see how that benefits them for the rest of their lives.”
Zhang says her journey was forged by being prepared, working hard, believing in herself and never letting her differences play a negative role in her trajectory. Her message to current and future students, women and men alike, is, “never worry if your goal is too far away… work hard to prepare yourself, keep going, take the opportunities presented to you no matter how daunting, and never give up. You’ll eventually get to where you want to be.”
About Parallax Advanced Research
Parallax is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that tackles global challenges by accelerating innovation and by developing technology and solutions through strategic partnerships with government, industry and academia across Ohio and the Nation. This is accomplished through The Science of Intelligent Teaming™. Together with academia, Parallax accelerates innovation that leads to new breakthroughs. Together with government, Parallax tackles critical global challenges and delivers new solutions. Together with industry, Parallax develops groundbreaking ideas and speeds them to market.
About the OFRN
The OFRN is a State of Ohio-focused research and development program that was established by Parallax Advanced Research, The Ohio State University and the Ohio Department of Higher Education in 2014. The OFRN's mission is to stimulate Ohio's innovation economy by funding research and development projects that meet federal laboratory requirements and build statewide university and industry collaborations.