An Explorer in the World of Science

April 30, 2017
Editor: Candy Liao
Zhou Shuyun, professor of Physics Department, Tsinghua University in a lab on April 26, 2017. [China Daily]


Scientific research might not be everyone's idea of fun, but for physics professor Zhou Shuyun spending time in the lab is just that.

"Scientific research has been a lot of fun for me, and I enjoy the excitement of discovering something new," Zhou Shuyun, professor of physics at Tsinghua University, says.

The 37-year old professor was awarded the L'Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science China Award in February for her contributions to the electronic structure of novel two-dimensional crystals and heterostructures.

Heterostructure is an emerging field and Zhou's group at Tsinghua is continuing to explore this new world.

"In simple words, our job is to advance the understanding of material properties, or the 'DNA' of materials. We hope that such understanding can lead to new materials with improved properties for the sake of future application, such as making a lighter laptop or a transparent mobile phone," Zhou explained.

Never an easy path

"Scientific research is never an easy path. It requires dozens of hours of concentration on each experiment, and years of perseverance," Zhou said. She recalled an experiment on Graphene/ Boron nitride VDW heterostructure, which took her group two years to finish, with dozens of experiments.

"Each experiment took a whole 24 hours, and we would adjust our experimental program constantly. It is a process of trial, feedback, and progress. One needs to keep concentrating hard during the 24-hour experiment, and I would ignore other staffs' conversation if they were not experiment-related."

The competition to spend time in an advanced lab is furious, because you need to compete with rivals from all over the world. "The chance for the best groups to get access to an advanced lab is less than one third, so we will pour ourselves in if we get the chance," the professor said.

Sometimes Zhou stays up late for an experiment, and gets so excited by the results she can't fall asleep. "I will be very excited with every single step forward, and will never feel frustrated or exhausted in the lab, because doing research on novel materials itself is exciting enough."

The period of fundamental research varies from years to decades, and is very useful to society, for we not only invest in current life, but also our future, Zhou said proudly.

"We scientists are all smart ones," Zhou said with a big smile. "But those who can accomplish big achievements are by no means simply smart, but hard-working as well. The impetus should always come from deep inside your heart, not from other people. All good scientists are picky, thus we can constantly push our boundaries and surpass others."

Her husband, also a physicist, remains a solid pillar of support for her career. "He would do all the household chores when I was busy on a big project," the professor said.

Returning to Tsinghua

During her undergraduate study at Tsinghua University, Zhou developed a keen interest in condensed matter physics. After graduation, she continued her PhD studies at the University of California, Berkeley. After earning her doctorate degree, she became a postdoctoral fellow of the Advanced Light Source and later a project scientist of the Materials Sciences Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In 2012, Zhou decided to return to Tsinghua and start her own research group in the Physics Department.

"The academic level of undergraduate students at Tsinghua is excellent and is well recognized in international academia, but the overall research level of our doctorate students has large room to improve," Zhou said. As the country is improving both soft and hardware for scientific research, I feel obliged to come back to and make my own contribution to the university, the professor said.

Girls should listen to their hearts, not stereotypes

Zhou wishes that there will be no need to distinguish between male and female scientists one day. The professor said she has been quite used to the scenario of stepping into a conference hall and being one of a handful of female scientists among a sea of suits and ties.

"One good thing is that the evaluation criteria in scientific field are based on one's work, not gender, so I am quite ok as the minority."

"For girls who are interested in physics, what matters most is the call of the heart, and not to be interrupted by the social stereotype that girls are not born as scientists," Zhou said.

Zhou regards herself very lucky, for her doctoral supervisor Alessandra Lanzara is a female professor. Lanzara started her research group from nothing during Zhou's study in Berkeley, and received excellent research achievements while building her family and taking good care of the kids. "I never thought about whether female is suitable for scientific research, and the only thing I am concerned is whether I like it or not, and whether I can have fun and sense of accomplishment through scientific research."

"I hope I can be a positive support to my female students, and let them know that girls can strike a balance between scientific research and family," Zhou said.

(Source: China Daily)

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