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Global Engagement Champion: Dr. Jie Zhuang

CGE would like to present Dr. Joe Zhuang as this month’s Global Engagement Champion. He is an influential member of UT’s staff as a Professor of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science and Program Coordinator of the China Scholars Program. 

Zhuang currently serves as the project leader of the international research coordination network for “Creating Transdisciplinary Nodes of Food-Energy-Water to Support Sustainable Urban Systems” (FEWSUS). He focuses his research efforts on creating sustainability and improving environmental health as urbanization rates rise. Zhuang’s work has been recognized and funded by the US National Science Foundation for his efforts in urban sustainability.

Q: How did you get started in international work?
A: In 2006, we launched a US and China Joint Research Center for Ecosystem and Environment Change (JRCEEC), with the participation of researchers from UT, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Purdue University, and three Chinese institutions. This partnership started from binational discussions on greenhouse gas emissions and bioenergy development by organizing annual meetings. JRCEEC always focused on cutting-edge themes for transdisciplinary convergence of knowledge and perspectives, such as climate change, bioenergy, ecosystem services, and food-energy-water (FEW) nexus. For many times, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and Department of Energy (DOE) sponsored the meetings.  For instance, NSF funded a project in 2017 for UT to lead and build a binational model that could facilitate collaboration in FEW nexus. This model for sustainable development is currently expanding to many other countries under the support of a newly funded NSF grant.
Q: What made you want to get involved with international work?
A: I am a soil scientist and mainly focus on environmental issues about how we can improve our environmental health and ecosystem services while maximizing the reuse of waste resources such as wastewater and agricultural biomass. This type of research involves multidisciplinary collaboration, and there are rich research resources in the international communities. Thus, through international collaboration, it is easy to find the best collaborators and start complementary, innovative research in a synergistic manner. International collaboration can also increase the global impacts of UT and benefits UT students by facilitating accesses to various teaching and research resources.
Q: How has international collaboration impacted your professional activities?

A: International collaboration has a multitude of benefits to my career development. It not only keeps me in the frontiers of research but also help me explore new research topics or approaches as needed in my research. Since I realize that international collaboration can reshape the curves of learning, teaching, and practicing, I always encourage UT students to walk out of their own thoughts and take an in-person look at the world, especially those countries that are different from the U.S. culturally and socio-politically.  International collaboration can help build the confidence of scholars and especially students because global engagement can trigger novel interests and make students to find their unique talents and passions. In the summer of 2013, I had the opportunity to take two Haslam Scholars who had never left Tennessee before going to China for them to conduct internship research in northeastern China. Their performance was well commented by Chinese professors and students. After that trip, they became enthusiastic about global sustainability issues and traveled to many other countries. I am very proud of the opportunity witnessing how global engagement changed their views on the world. This is why I always advocate the importance of international experience for faculty’s growth in academy. I believe that international outreach is a way by which we promote ourselves by helping collaborators.

Q: There has been a lot of change with internationally engaged research, teaching and service in this past year, how have you been adapting your professional work?

A: There are good and bad aspects to this past year, it has become easier to connect by using online meetings, but it is difficult to develop a personal relationship. A big advantage is that it is easier to invite people from different countries and arrange meeting activities while there is no need to worry about project budget in regard to number of participants and their logistics.  Hopefully, after the COVID-19, we can get those participants to meet face-to-face and solidify/upgrade the established networking. This pandemic has pushed us to conduct our research in a different way, making research communities better connected virtually at larger scale.

Q: Have you worked with the Global Research Office, Programs Abroad, Office of Asian Engagement, the I-House, or ISSS? If so, in what capacity? And can you describe any outcomes or impacts of that work?

A: Yes, I have built a very good relationship with Center for Global Engagement’s Global Research Office, Asian Engagement Office, and Study Abroad Program. I am working with each of these offices to develop study abroad program and international research proposals as solicited by federal funding agencies. Vice Provost Gretchen Neisler has provided many supports to our research and academic collaborations with other countries. In particular, she has done work on the UT-China PhD program renewal.

Q: What are some of your current professional projects, especially with your lead in the food, energy and water sustainability project?

A: We are working on development a network with many other countries, and the main goal of the project is to establish three types of global networks, including research, student, and stakeholder networks. We endeavor to get many countries connected to share findings, experiences, and perspectives about urban sustainability and climate-smart development of food-energy-water systems. We want to create a new mechanism that can greatly facilitate learning and collaboration among countries with a wide range of urbanization rates from ~20% to ~100%. We believe that international learning can help avoid unintended consequences and make the world more sustainable, as more and more people begin to live in cities.

Q: Do you feel global engagement needs to be a valued part of the university culture and why?

A: Yes, culture could be a great catalyst of research collaboration. The world is becoming “One Ecosystem”, with almost all human-sustaining systems connected globally through supply chains. If we can overcome cultural barriers, we can develop economy-effective and policy-acceptable approaches to secure our shared global ecosystem for mitigating the impacts of climate change, population growth, and urbanization. It is about learning how to harmonize differences in culture and backgrounds…All students need to go out and explore other countries. To do so we need to. If we want to keep global leadership, it is necessary for us to communicate internationally by understanding other cultures and languages.

Q: What has been among your most rewarding international experience thus far?

A: I am most proud of the China-UT PhD Program that started in 2014 for the sustainability of energy and environment. This is the largest program supported by the China Scholarship Council (CSC) in the world and the largest PhD program between the U.S and China. Students recruited by the program receive supports of living stipends and medical insurance from China Scholarship Council, out-of-state tuition from Chancellor’s Office, and in-state tuition from department or faculty. The number of PhD students influences not only the national ranking of UT but also the research of faculty especially in the research areas that significantly rely on international students.  The program has brought 28 Chinese students for PhD study in ten departments of UT, and 14 students have been ready for beginning in the fall semester of 2021 depending COVID-19 situation. Each student saves UT cost by $91,200.

Q: Once traveling is back to normal, where would you like to go?

A: We have many plans to travel, but we have not decided yet. We will invite our UT faculty and students to travel to other countries, e.g., Argentina, China and Colombia, to meet with their virtually identified collaborators. We just submitted a proposal for US-Columbia partnership to bring our students to Columbia hopefully after summer.