Research: Highlights

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11.15.16 - Meet Jian-Guo Zheng, the "Face of Calit2"

Jian-Guo Zheng, IMRI facilities director


Growing up in rural China, Jian-Guo Zheng’s life was less than idyllic. His beloved father, a well-liked village tailor, died when Jian-Guo was only eight. His mother, a peasant farmer with no formal education, remarried a couple of years later, and although his stepfather was kind, Zheng recalls the stigma of losing the family’s patriarch. “The concept of family is very important in China. Our whole family was looked down upon. Even when my stepfather joined the family, he was considered an outsider.”
Still a child himself, Zheng suddenly was saddled with family responsibilities: division of property, home repairs and refereeing family squabbles. “It was a lot of pressure,” he says of those years. “I had white hairs when I was only 13. It was unfortunate to experience these things as a child, but it made me grow up quickly.”
School, though, was a respite from the stress. “I was very happy in school and really enjoyed it,” Zheng says, “because I did very well and the teachers were kind.”
Nothing made his mother happier than her son’s success in school. Her own childhood responsibility for tending her siblings and helping on the family farm precluded an education; she carried that regret into adulthood. “She talked about not having the chance to go to school, especially when I played a little too much,” says Zheng of his mother, who, even today, at 89, cannot read and can write only her own name. “When I was young, my mom always told me that she will support my efforts to go to school however she can.”
Luckily for Zheng – and his mother – China’s political turbulence abated at just the right time. From 1966 to 1976, during the country’s Cultural Revolution, education was stifled. Many middle and high schools were disrupted, and universities operated on reduced schedules, if at all. When the revolution ended in 1976, though, ambitious students like Zheng regained lost opportunity. “If the Cultural Revolution continued for a few more years, I would never have gotten the chance to go to university,” he says.
With the end of the revolution, millions of students now could compete for limited spots in the country’s reopened universities.  High-achieving pupils were chosen to take a national college-entrance examination. Zheng, number one in his class, was selected to sit for the first national exam in 1977, when he was a 15-year-old freshman.
He failed. “From 1968 to 1976, we hadn’t learned much in our school,” he says, shrugging.
As a sophomore, he tried again, borrowing books from family friends, learning from teachers and studying old textbooks around the clock. He aced the exam, with scores good enough to land him a spot in any of the country’s universities. Unfortunately, however, preference that year was given to students who had already graduated.
So Zheng waited. The third time was the charm. In 1979, he was accepted to Nanjing University – one of China’s best – in the physics department, which accepted only one of every few hundred applicants.
Now an expert in electron microscopy and director of facilities for UC Irvine’s IMRI (Irvine Materials Research Institute) Zheng earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in solid state physics from Nanjing University, completed postdoctoral work in England, and today oversees millions of dollars’ worth of high-tech materials characterization equipment.
Vision, patience, hard work and determination define him. Zheng knows what he wants and chases his goals insistently. When he felt he wasn’t learning enough, he declined renewal of a productive guest scientist position in Germany; when he decided to improve his English and electron microscopy skills, he turned down a prestigious job offer in another German city.
Instead, Zheng wrote to Prof. John Steeds, a British microscopist and a Fellow of the Royal Society, to apply for a postdoctoral position. “Dr. Steeds was famous in electron microscopy, especially convergent beam electron diffraction, and that’s what I wanted,” says Zheng, who at the time, had worked in Germany for more than two years but whose wife and five-year-old son were still living in China. “I didn’t care about a title; I didn’t care about income. I knew his reputation and I just wanted to come and learn transmission electron microscopy and bring my family with me.”
He got the position and a three-year contract in Bristol, England.
Zheng had written another letter before moving to England, this one to Northwestern University’s materials science department. “They are one of the best in the world,” he says.
That letter was never answered, but after working in England for several years, Zheng saw an online advertisement for a job at Northwestern’s Electron Probe Instrumentation Center (EPIC).
“I submitted my resume, and I got a phone call from the director, who asked, ‘When do you want to come? We’d like to interview you.’” Zheng stayed at Northwestern for five years, managing EPIC, while doubling its usage and revenue in the process.
Then a friend told him about a job at Calit2 at UCI. A quick website search convinced Zheng that the job wasn’t for him. “I’m a TEM guy and the TEM at Calit2 was older. I did not think UCI was the right place for me.”
A few months later, the friend prodded him again, telling Zheng he thought the job was a good opportunity. This time he decided to submit a resume and pay a visit to the campus. UCI Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Professor Albert Yee, who directed Calit2 at the time, told Zheng his goal was to improve the institute’s materials characterization capabilities. “I was happy at Northwestern but it was a pretty established place,” says Zheng. “Albert told me there was great potential here.”
That was 10 years ago. The facility that Zheng was hired to oversee has grown from a few instruments to a world-class materials characterization center. IMRI encompasses several unique facilities: a surface science facility, a scanning electron microscopy facility, an x-ray diffraction facility and a new TEM center that houses four state-of-the-art TEMs.
Currently counting more than 350 registered users from academia and industry, IMRI houses several dozen highly sophisticated instruments, including the best in X-ray powder diffraction, scanning electron microscopy, transmission electron microscopy, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, ultraviolet photoelectron spectroscopy and auger electron spectroscopy in Southern California.
And, a new state-of-the-art center for sample preparation and property measurement is expected to open next year. TEMPR will provide thermal, elemental, mechanical, physical and rheological services, and will support materials discovery in physical sciences, biology, engineering and medicine.
Zheng is understandably satisfied. “My ambition was to have a world-class facility, and I think right now our facility is indeed world-class,” he says. “I haven’t done it alone but I have played a role.”
His approach encompasses four goals: safety, including a safe environment and users properly trained on the equipment; user-friendliness – all machines are available, functional and well-maintained; astute staffing and competitiveness – instruments and staff can meet imposing research challenges; and sustainability, which includes substantial use of equipment and a long-term development plan. “If users need something, we should be able to achieve it here,” he says simply.
“Jian-Guo does an incredible job running the day-to-day operations,” says Matt Law, UCI associate professor of chemistry, former faculty director of the Laboratory for Electron and X-Ray Instrumentation and current IMRI associate director.  “His extraordinary dedication, knowledge, skill and hard work have been absolutely critical to the early survival and continuing growth, scientific impact and financial success of the facilities. We’d be in big trouble without him.”
Zheng’s record speaks for itself. In his first year on the job, instrument performance and usage improved immensely, and revenue from the center was sufficient to cover costs; in his second year, revenue doubled, and during his third year, almost tripled. Today, users come from all over Southern California, and revenue has increased more than six-fold.
Another feather in Zheng’s cap: the facilities continue to support themselves; all instruments and services have been maintained by user revenue for the last 10 years. “This is a great achievement because not many facilities in the world can do that,” Zheng says.
“Immediately upon joining UCI, Jian-Guo went about rebuilding an arguably not-very-user-friendly facility – and a pretty ancient one – into one that became accessible to everyone,” says Yee, who hired him. “He is now director of facilities for IMRI, a position he earned through sheer hard work and dedication.”
In the early years, Zheng sacrificed vacations, choosing instead to focus on his work. Even now, with additional staff to help ease the load, Zheng, who still works 10-hour days, prefers a hands-on approach. “Despite presiding over what is becoming the premier electron microscopy facility in Southern California and a good swath of the Southwestern U.S.,” says Yee, “he remains humble and dedicated to the facility. it is a common sight to see him hunched over an inexperienced user, offering detailed guidance.”
Adds Law: “Jian-Guo does what it takes to support our users, routinely working long hours, late at night, and on weekends to keep the operation humming along. As a result, he has enabled the research of at least a thousand students and postdocs, a hundred or so faculty, and scores of companies. That’s a huge impact.”
These days Zheng does get away a couple of times a year to visit his mother in China. “I have to make sure my job is taken care of, but at the same time, as a man, I have to take care of my mom and my small family. Without their support, I would not have been able to get to this point.”
Family includes his wife, Lily Wu, and son, Xida (pronounced Sheeda), now 26 and a Caltech graduate living in New York City. Xida majored in chemical engineering, but decided instead to develop apps for social media. After some initial consternation, Zheng reluctantly gave his blessing. “I said, ‘Fine, as long as you’re happy, it’s okay.’ My idea is that no matter what you do, you do it well.”
For Zheng, that includes being well-prepared, hardworking and most of all, zealous. “You have to do something you want to do, and go for it. Fame and money should not be the first thing we consider,” he says. “I want to do something I’m really passionate about.
“When I see people happy, when they get the job done, when they publish their papers and our facility becomes very important to the university and to research … that’s the reward. That’s why I came here.”Save