November 16, 2021
After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Siyang “Sandy” Zhang received a lucrative job offer in industry.
“It was so stable, that I could see my whole life until retirement,” she said.
Fate had other plans. At the last minute, Zhang decided she’d rather continue her education and see what else she could learn. So, she decided to pursue a master’s in geography at Mizzou, which led her to the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering for her PhD, where she found her true calling.
“I saw my passion for teaching and research,” she said. “I observed how my advisor, Dr. Carlos Sun, influenced me from all perspectives, and his trust, encouragement and support made me a better person. I decided to become a person like him and pass these along to my students.”
Zhang will have that opportunity at Tongji University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in China, where she now works as an assistant professor.
‘It was serendipity’
Zhang started her bachelor’s program at North China Electric Power University in Beijing, which had a joint 2+2 program with Mizzou.
During her last semester, she decided to pursue a master’s degree.
“It was serendipity,” she said. “I was running out of time to apply, so I stayed at Mizzou. Geography was a friend’s major, and I found it to be interesting and attractive. During my study in geography, I figured out that the main role of Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) was as a tool for planning and analysis, and I wanted to work at the upstream. So, I started my study in civil engineering, focused on transportation.”
Early in the graduate program, Zhang got involved in Sun’s lab working with the ZouSim simulator suite, which includes a bike, car, truck, pedestrian, wheelchair and e-scooter simulators. She and her research team collaborated with the Federal Highway Administration, Missouri Department of Transportation, City of Columbia and other companies and agencies to test smart work zone technologies, signage, pavement marking and other highway projects.
Advice for others
Zhang now encourages other students at Mizzou Engineering to consider their post-graduate options. She recommends students attend career fairs, get to know the job market and conduct research to fully explore the possibilities.
“For undergraduate students, do undergraduate research,” she said. “This will help them figure out if they have any interest in research or if they would prefer going into industry. The earlier they find out their career interest, the better.”
For graduate students, Zhang encourages them to attend conferences and seminars, network and publish their work.
And engineering faculty are there to provide guidance and support, she said, noting that Sun, along with Department Chair Praveen Edara, Associate Professor Tim Matisziw, research engineer Henry Brown and Charles Nemmers, director of the Transportation Infrastructure Center, were instrumental during her PhD experience.
“They taught me professional knowledge, guided me through projects and research, expanded my thoughts, helped me improve my writing and presentation skills and supported me during the job hunt process,” Zhang said. “They were kind and accessible. I learned a lot from them, not only knowledge, but teaching and research philosophies and attitude in life.”