Interview with Zhang Jun

Please give a brief background on yourself. 
I have been teaching at NYU for 15 years. I began my work here in 1997 as a postdoctoral researcher, and in 2001 I became a professor. I think I have remained at NYU for so long because I really enjoy working at this university. NYU is very diverse, always centrally located, I love the Village. Also, my work integrates the two departments of math and physics, and this integration really embodied the spirit of NYU.
One of NYU Shanghai’s goals is also to foster interdisciplinary discourse not only between the sciences, but the sciences and arts as well. Do you find yourself doing a lot of this?
Certainly. In fact, many of the images and visualizations we got from my work have ended up on the covers of books, websites, and as decorations. I’ve worked on several projects with the National Science Foundation on bridging science and art. For example, we did a project on fluid dynamics, where we tracked the movement of air and water, and then used our data to create visualizations. Other projects we did involve the flight behaviors of birds, and patterns created by fish when they’re swimming. We also simulate the movement of continents and create these visually striking images.

Our work has been featured in La Monde, The New Yorker, Popular Science, New Scientist, the ABC Evening News, and the Economist. As you can see, the work we do at NYU is not confined to the realm of science.

Do you bring such practical applications of math and physics into your teaching?

Yes. The syllabus for Foundation of Science classes at NYU Shanghai is quite demanding already, but there’s always room to squeeze my research interests into class. For example, in late April of this year, I gave a seminar on my trip to Antarctica, and by the end of the seminar, several students told me they were inspired to switch their concentration to physics. I always try to relate my work and research to my classes in order to inspire students. I think they can see your enthusiasm about your subject.

How was Antarctica?
Cold. [laughs]. Actually I went in December, 2014, which was summer there, but the temperature still hovered around freezing the entire time. I went there to research marine life such as krill and pterapods, which are key links in the marine food chain. I spent nearly a month tracking their swimming behavior, and school formations.

What was life like in Antarctica?
We lived in dorms. It was a semi-military existence. We had a very strict schedule for eating, exercising, and etc. We had to follow all safety and environmental. The physical exam I had to undergo to be cleared to go to Antarctica also took a long time. We had to be trained for how to get out of the research stations, and what to wear to go out and collect samples. When we were on the ship that took us to Antarctica from South America, we would be woken up in the middle of the night by fire drills. It took me five flight transfers to finally get to Punta Arenas (Chile), and then we were on the ship for five days. Since I couldn’t check my email the entire time, I arrived to Antarctica to hundreds of emails in my inbox.

How is the Wifi in Antarctica?
Slow. There’s no cables there, you know, so we were allowed to use the internet for short emails only, and we couldn’t send files larger than one megabyte. All of the data we collected was moved off of the continent on hard drives.

Can you tell us about the Foundation of Sciences class you teach at NYU Shanghai?
Foundation of Sciences horizontally integrates the sciences. We cover physics, chemistry, biology, and etcetera. I taught my first biophysics class 15 years ago at NYU on the Square. It’s been my practice to bring my own research into class discussions, plugging in problems to the internal logic of the sciences.

Overall, the students here are quite driven. I think we’ve fostered a good environment, and there’s a collective motivation to learn. It’s all about creating an atmosphere conducive to learning with attention and guidance. I always encourage my students to ask questions in order to nourish the habit of student involvement, and I stop talking before drawing conclusions sometimes in order to give them room to make their own connections. The students here never check their phones in class because they don’t want to miss anything. Sometimes, I have to tell them to calm their excitement, and often four or five people have questions at the same time.

Is there a gap in knowledge between International and Chinese students in math and science?
I have to say there is. Chinese students, especially the ones from bigger cities like Beijing or Shanghai are overall better prepared in math and physics. However, I think the students are equally matched in terms of raw interest and motivation. Skill doesn’t mean much without interest and passion, so I wouldn’t take the gap as a sign of anything. They’re still first and second years right now, my goal is to cultivate a continued interest.

I would also like to see more opportunities for the students to start working in the laboratory, to see first-hand what research is like. Undergraduates at NYU have the chance to do this, and in a few years, we’ll have our first Senior class. I’d like to take some of them to work, researching, publishing, and discovering new things. I have a 200 square meter lab at ECNU/NYU Shanghai's joint institute, and there I can actually engage in my research interests involving animal locomotion.

The bigger picture of NYU Shanghai is that of a research university. That’s a large part of why I came here, to do research.

What is your best memory of your time at NYU Shanghai?
It’s not a memory, as it’s ongoing right now. I just really enjoy the environment here, there’s a sense of community because we’re still so small. The staff, faculty, and students form a kind of small village. Because we’re such a small university, we have to constantly reach out to each other and the community, to form ties. A huge university is more self-sustained, but I think the spirit of NYU Shanghai is that of connection and outreach.

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