Texas Tech University

Hong Zhang

Professor
Department of Biological Sciences
College of Arts & Sciences 

zhang portrait in lab holding plant

What are your research objectives and interests?

Understanding how plants respond to environmental stresses and then using the knowledge learned to make plants more tolerant to those environmental stresses. The environmental stresses that we commonly see are drought, high or low temperatures, and high salinity in soils. These stresses are major factors that cause significant losses in agricultural productivity worldwide. If we can make crops more tolerant to these stresses, we should be able to increase crop yields substantially.

How do you feel your research impacts the globe?

The world population continues to rise, yet the food production has plateaued for the last 20 years. By 2050, the world population is expected to reach 9 billion. Food production will have to be increased by 50 percent or more to feed the population. Climate change will likely make many parts of the world hotter and drier which will be very bad for agriculture. In order to feed and clothe the growing population, we must develop technologies that will increase food and fiber production or maintain high agricultural productivity under exceedingly limited inputs and using fewer acres of land in the future. What we are doing today is preparing our crops for much harsher environmental conditions tomorrow: less water for irrigation, higher atmospheric temperatures, and saline soils in many places. I believe that our research will have a positive impact on agriculture in the future.

What types of service projects have you been involved with?

I promote Texas Tech's international reputation, particularly TTU's influence in China. Currently there are about 1,700 international students at Texas Tech. If you look around American universities, especially those research intensive universities, the ratios of international students to the total student population on their campuses are usually 20 percent or higher. Yet, the ratio at Texas Tech is below 5 percent. We are far behind those great American universities. Texas Tech is a very good university, and we have some of the best programs in the U.S. Therefore, our university should attract far more international students. In the last several years, I have traveled in China every summer, delivering lectures on our university. I want people in China to know that we can provide the best education for their students and coming to Texas Tech to study is one of the best investments for their kids.

Meanwhile, Texas Tech sends fewer than a thousand students aboard each year through the Study Abroad Program in the summer. Most of our students go to European and Latin America countries. Very few go to Asia. The second and third largest economies in the world are China and Japan, respectively. More than half of the world's population lives in Asia, and some of the oldest civilizations are in Asia (e.g. India and China). Yet so few TTU students know much about Asia or go to Asia to study. I would like to see more TTU students going to Asia to study. Therefore, I actively involve myself in establishing the academic exchange programs between TTU and some Chinese universities by working closely with TTU's Office of International Affairs. In China and the rest of Asia, there is so much to be learned by our students, both culturally and educationally. I hope, through our effort, more and more TTU students will go to Asia to study in the future.

zhang and student looking at plant and petri dish

What are you currently working on?

Currently, I am helping TTU administrators establish a Confucius Institute at Texas Tech University. We are working with Lanzhou University, one of the best universities in China, in establishing a Confucius Institute. Confucius was a great educator and philosopher in ancient China more than 2,500 year ago. His thoughts have influenced and shaped Chinese culture and educational systems for more than 2,000 years. With a Confucius Institute established at Texas Tech, our students will be able to learn the Chinese language and Chinese culture more conveniently.

Where do you find your inspiration?

From my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Chris Somerville. I studied with Chris from 1984 to 1989 at Michigan State University. Chris is a great scientist and a true scholar. He made many important contributions in our understanding of plant growth and development and plant primary metabolism, especially how fatty acids and the cell wall are synthesized in plants. Chris never stops thinking about new ways to study the mysteries of plants. His most recent endeavor is to learn how to efficiently harvest energy from plants so that we can reduce our dependence on oil and natural gas. Chris is a role model for many of us. Not only is he a great scientist, but also an honest, hard-working, and caring person. He cares about students, postdocs, assistants and people around him. I want to be a good mentor for my students and a good scientist who can make important contributions to mankind like Chris.

What advice do you have for new faculty members
about balancing the components of Integrated Scholarship—
teaching, research, and service—in their careers?

In the beginning, a new faculty member needs to focus on becoming a good teacher. I would spend 50 percent of my time on teaching and improving my teaching, 40-45 percent of my time establishing my lab or writing grant proposals, and 5 percent or less time on service in the first year. As your teaching skill improves, you can increase your time on research and secure extramural funding for your research in the following years. By the time a young faculty enters his/her fifth year in a tenure-track position, I would probably divide my time into 30 percent on teaching, 65 percent on research, and 5 percent on service. As we become senior professors, we will need to spend more time on service, as we have responsibilities to serve our university, our community, our country and our professional societies. For example, I regularly serve as a panel member or a reviewer to decide what type of research we should support at federal funding agencies. Very often, I also serve as a journal editor to decide whether a manuscript should be accepted for publication. Depending on the specific time in your career, you should adjust your time among teaching, research and services.

More about Hong Zhang

Dr. Zhang received his undergraduate education at Sichuan University in China from 1978 to 1982, and then, he served as a junior faculty member at Sichuan University for one year. In 1983, Dr. Zhang went to Michigan State University for graduate study. He studied under the guidance of Dr. Chris Somerville in MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory from 1984 to 1989. After receiving his Ph.D., Dr. Zhang went to Dr. Howard Goodman's laboratory at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to do postdoctoral research. In 1995, Dr. Zhang was hired by the Department of Biological Sciences of Texas Tech. Dr. Zhang teaches genetics, advanced genetics, and advanced plant molecular biology at Texas Tech. He conducts research in the areas of plant molecular biology and plant biotechnology. As of 2015, Dr. Zhang has graduated 12 Ph.D. and 9 M.S. students. Currently, he is directing 9 Ph.D. students, one exchange Ph.D. student, and three visiting professors.