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Traineeship brings grad students outreach skills to the spotlight

A man kneels behind to the water bottle rocket launcher.

Feng “Tom” Zhao Zhang kneels by the contraption he built to launch water bottle rockets for the mechanical and aerospace engineering aspect of the annual MU Engineering Summer Camp. Outreach is part of the mission of the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship, a program in which Zhang participates.

“I wore suit every day for six months.”

In Feng “Tom” Zhao Zhang’s world, social experiments are as common as his engineering ones. Seeing if he could make himself wear a suit and tie to go to class was like a training exercise for the world he envisioned was in his future because, coming from an immigrant family of entrepreneurs, business is in his blood.

The mechanical engineering doctoral student said he thrives working in a team, which is one of the reasons he’s most looking forward to working in industry.

“I’ve been told engineering is 60 percent technical and 40 percent social. That’s been my motto,” Zhang said.

Zhang’s family emigrated to the U.S. from China when he was just a boy, first living in New York, and then moving to Alabama, where he spent most of his childhood. His love of engineering began as a high school student when he had the opportunity to, instead of conventional classes, spend one class period each day at an engineering firm where he “learned multiple facets of engineering.”

After his freshman year at Auburn University, Zhang transferred to the University of Missouri College of Engineering.

“My best friend toured Mizzou before we started college, and I tagged along on that tour,” Zhang said. “I thought, ‘this isn’t a bad place.’”

He earned his bachelor’s degree from the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department in 2011 and then earned a traineeship from the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, a National Science Foundation program, which persuaded him to pursue his doctorate.

“I was planning on doing the master’s program for a year and a half,” Zhang said. “But that’s when this IGERT program kicked in, and I was told of all the opportunities it provided.”

The University of Missouri IGERT program [igert.missouri.edu] is supported by a five-year grant to the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences. Awarded in 2012, its aim is to train students from multiple science-field backgrounds in the application of neutron scattering.

“They want more people to be able to use these large, national laboratories, especially non-physicists,” Zhang said.

As a graduate student, he also continued research on heat transfer that he started as an undergraduate with Hongbin “Bill” Ma, a C.W. LaPierre Professor of mechanical engineering. He also is working with Associate Professor Robert Winholtz for his traineeship requirements, which include specific coursework, projects and outreach. Zhang’s outreach efforts have included talks at Moberly Area Community College, a “Cosmic Conversations” presentation on campus and project design for the mechanical engineering aspect of MU Engineering’s annual High School Summer Camp.

Zhang’s research will utilize neutron imaging — performed at the National Institute for Standards and Technology Reactor — to examine the fluid motions in oscillating heat pipes.  The neutrons can “see” through the metal exterior of the heat pipe and reveal where the liquid is in the interior. Oscillating heat pipes should one day provide improved cooling for computer chips.

After his anticipated graduation in December 2015, Zhang said he plans to get a job in industry, where he hopes to become a team leader.

“I want to get a group of people together and do exciting things,” he said. “I ask myself, ‘how do you get the most out of the people in your team?’ That’s what I want to do.”