Julia Zhang

As a young girl growing up in China, Julia Zhang had an impossible dream — to be a fighter pilot. The power of the jet fighters taking off vertically captured her imagination. And although her dream could not be realized, she still loves anything related to aviation.

“I think it’s so amazing that you can make such a huge thing airborne and fly half of the distance of the earth at a very high airspeed. When I was little I admired the pilots because they are so good at controlling the aircraft and using various methods to navigate themselves. Then, later, when I learned more about the extremely complicated mechanical and electrical systems, I realized people who design aircraft are really amazing!” she says.

But, cautioned by her father to choose a practical area of study rather than aircraft design, she went into electrical engineering and got inspired to do research in college when she had an opportunity to work on a magnetic suspension model for high-speed electric motors.

Zhang knew she wanted to continue research in electric machine design, electric drive control, and power electronics when she came to the U.S. to do her Ph.D. work at Ohio State. There she had many opportunities for research on electric machine design and electric machine drive control such as a project with Caterpillar to develop control algorithms for the electric machine drive system on heavy duty hybrid mining vehicles.

While still finishing her degree, she started with Ford Motor Company, leading the development for electric motor drive control and power electronics control for the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Ford C-Max Hybrid.

“I think two years of industry experience was really, really helpful for me to get that technical experience but also for developing my leadership and communication skills,” she said.

But she was driven to become a professor. “When I was a student in graduate school, I had some professors who were very nice and influenced me a lot. They made a huge difference in my life and I wanted to become a person like that who could encourage and inspire students and help them build good thinking from early in their lives,” she says.

In her research at OSU she will collaborate with the Energy Systems group on renewable energy sources like wind and waves, where she will work on the component side of energy conversion, and also continue her individual research in the area of electric vehicles.

And although her dream changed from being a fighter pilot to being a professor, airplanes are still a huge part of her life. It would have been impossible for her to fly in China, so she seized the opportunity to learn while she was in the U.S. and got her private pilot’s license when she lived in Detroit. Here in Corvallis, she joined the Oregon State Flying Club and she flies whenever she can. She is also seeking out opportunities to work on electric drive and power electronics for aircraft.

Zhang also enjoys playing the piano, particularly her favorite composer, Ravel — a hobby she has pursued since she was six years old.

Be it research, teaching, or her hobbies, she is not one to shy away from a challenge. “When I am interested in something which may not even seem realistic for me at this moment, I just make a plan and work hard to make steady progress to get closer and closer to my goal,” she says.


— by Rachel Robertson