Meet Our People: Dr. Sam Zhang

 

Dr. Wenyao Sam Zhang is Senior Professor of Mathematics and the Math Department coordinator for adjuncts. He has taught at Union for more than 20 years and is a favorite among students.
 
Q: So you grew up in China.
A: Yes, in a little village in the northeast part of China, close to North Korea. My village was about twenty miles away from a city, Anshan.
 
Q: What was it like growing up there?
A: It was an interesting life. People had a simple life. It was hard but I still liked that life. People were in touch with the environment. There was no pollution, no waste.
 
Q: Do you still have family living there?
A: No, my parents are now in Anshan. Because of their age, they prefer a city because you have a heating system and a better life than in the countryside.
 
Q: So you were a kid in the 1960s. What was that like?
A: In China, the government owns the land and everyone works for the government. They give you your allotment of rice and corn. We were farmers and we would grow the food. Then when we received our food, my mom had to manage it every day to last throughout the whole year.
 
Q: All the food came to you just once a year? When was that?
A: This time of year (October).
 
Q: But back to you. You become a brilliant research mathematician and here at Union, you turn out to be a great math teacher. How does someone growing up in China in the 1960s wind up where you are now? You went to school?
A: Yes, after I graduated from high school, I took the Nationwide Admission Test to see if I could go to college. They give the test once a year, each June. The cut off is a score of 530. If you score even one point off, you don’t go to college and have to wait a year if you want to try taking it again. Back when I took the test (1977), one in 20 would go to college. But the percentage is much higher now.
 
Q: And what about you? Did you barely squeak by?
A: (laughing) Oh no, no, no. I scored extremely high. And at the time, I would have been able to study what I wanted to study, which was computer science, and I scored high enough to be
placed in one of China’s top universities. But when they gave me a physical examination, which
is part of what they did for admissions, they discovered I was color blind. You know, back in the
1970s, you couldn’t work in computers without being able to distinguish colors because the early
computers all used color coding. I couldn’t study Chemistry either because there too you need to
distinguish colors. Because of my test scores, I could still study either Math or Physics, but not at
a top university. I went to Anshan Iron and Steel College and received my bachelor’s degree in
Mathematics there. I was on a track to teach math.
 
Q: "Iron and Steel College"—not too catchy a name, huh?
A: Anshan was a steel factory that the Japanese built when they invaded China in the 1930s.
 
Q: OK, but you’re at a college that’s only twenty miles from where you grew up. That’s still an
awful long way from Cranford, New Jersey.
A: After that, I took another entrance test and was chosen for a three-year master’s program at
the East China Normal University in Shanghai. I earned a master’s in Pure Math and after that
began teaching in the province of Liaoning. But while I was there, I met a visiting professor from
the University of Iowa, Dr. Lin, who was a researcher in Functional Analysis.
 
Q: Sorry. I was sick the day they taught Functional Analysis in my school.
A: Sorry—it’s a higher order of Algebra. When Professor Lin came to China to lecture, I
attended his workshop and very much liked this research field in mathematics. He said he would
like to hire me as a teaching assistant at the University of Iowa. Once Professor Lin returned to
America, he and I corresponded for a while. He eventually worked it out so that I was able to
move to Iowa to become a teaching assistant in the University’s doctoral program. It got delayed
a little bit, though, so I didn’t actually start until after the first month of the fall semester. But by
1991, I completed my Ph.D. studies and worked for a year after that at the University of
Northern Illinois. But then my wife and I went back to Iowa, and to give myself a better range of
skills, I received a master’s degree in Statistics.
 
Q: How’d you wind up here as a professor?
A: My original training was as a teacher. Besides, if you love math, of course you want to share
your love of math with others. People who really love math have the best profession of all when
they’re teaching math. I saw the job at Union County College advertised and came here in 1993.
My family was getting bigger and I knew it was time to go to a good job at a nice place. And
that’s why I came to Union County College.
 
Q: On behalf of the students who are always praising you for the way you teach, we’re glad
you’re here. And when you think about how far you’ve come in your life: Thank god you’re
color blind!
A: Yes.
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