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Wei Zhao: Creating the Next Generation of Scientists

Wei Zhao is a world-renowned computer scientist and educator. Just a glance at his professional career and one understands why he was named dean of Rensselaer’s School of Science. But engage Zhao in conversation and you quickly understand that he brings a unique background and focused vision that extends far beyond that of a traditional administrator.

Zhao was raised in Xi’an, P.R. China, during the country’s Cultural Revolution, a period when the educational system came to a complete halt. Despite very limited opportunities for formal education in his homeland, Zhao arrived in the United States and earned his master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Now, 25 years later, he is considered a pioneer in the computing field and is internationally recognized for his research and innovations in distributed computing, real-time systems, and cyber camouflaging technologies. His educational struggle, coupled with his extensive experience in higher education, has instilled in him an unwavering dedication to education and research.

Zhao understands the challenges facing today’s science schools. “For many years science schools have downgraded themselves to a service mode. We are teaching calculus to engineers and IT to business students. Service is a good thing to do, but it cannot be our main mission.” Zhao believes that for the School of Science to stand alone, it must have clear goals and a vision for the future of its graduating scientists.

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Wei Zhao, dean of the School of Science. (Photo by Mark McCarty)
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Zhao stresses the ever-increasing importance of science education, especially in critical fields such as information technology, nanotechnology, biology, and energy and the environment. “The scientific framework is needed to spur technical innovation in these fields,” he states.

His ambition is to see nearly all undergraduate science students pursue and obtain higher degrees from top universities. “I believe that the time has come that you need more than a four-year degree to be a successful scientist, especially if you want to be a leader. Our goal is to make sure that our bachelor’s students are able to continue a successful learning path for life, including post-graduate education.”

Zhao’s aspiration for these students is employment at top-level universities and research institutions, leading the way in research advancements and teaching. “A university’s reputation is built by its graduating students. If our alumni are in the top 10, then we will be top 10.”

He also believes that a way to increase research success is by instilling students with a sense of entrepreneurship. “Research has evolved to include a high level of entrepreneurship,” Zhao says. “It is a group of people and a team effort. Just the research results are not enough today. You need to deliver, promote, and market your research product. This entire process of research management needs to be embedded in our graduate and undergraduate education.”

Zhao has advocated his philosophy on education and research throughout his career. Prior to joining Rensselaer, he served as department head of computer science and senior associate vice president for research at Texas A&M University, and as director of the Division of Computer and Network Systems at the National Science Foundation.

“Rensselaer is making tremendous strides,” Zhao concludes. “We want the School of Science positioned to make this move with the rest of the Institute. To do this, I want to lead, not push, all our graduating students to find success and reward in their lives and careers beyond Rensselaer. Their success will also be ours.”

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.