Women in Energy: Xuan Zhang
Xuan Zhang joined Argonne in August 2014 as a postdoctoral research associate in the Nuclear Engineering Division, where she works on characterizing and evaluating structural steels for applications in advanced nuclear reactors, primarily utilizing synchrotron x-ray techniques at the Advanced Photon Source. She also provides guidance for developing better steels to meet the stringent requirements imposed by the operating conditions in next-generation reactors. She received her bachelor’s degree in physics in 2009 from the University of Science and Technology of China, and her Ph.D. in materials science and engineering in 2014 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; her thesis work focused on physical metallurgy and irradiation effects in alloys.
Xuan is highly interested in helping female students to learn more about STEM. In February 2015, she served as a mentor to eighth-grade girls during Argonne’s annual “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” event.
What is the best part about your job?
The best part about my job is the sense of pride that comes from making contributions to a greener world, and from carrying out independent research guided only by scientific curiosity and importance. Being able to think freely feels awesome!
What inspires you?
My father cultivated my interest in math and science, starting when I was about 10. He’s an electrical engineer who loves his job, and he couldn’t imagine me, as the only child in the family, doing anything other than a STEM-related job. He encouraged me to tackle difficult mathematical problems and to participate in science competitions. I enjoyed the thrill of achievement and started to expect more. In my teenage years, China’s heavy emphasis on the importance of STEM to the country also inspired me to a great extent.
When did you first consider pursuing a STEM degree?
From a very young age, I felt that I was not perceptual enough to be an artist, and dealing with people was certainly not the thing I enjoyed most. On the other hand, I loved Mother Nature and was eager to resolve the mechanism behind every phenomenon. As a result, when I had to make my career decision (in high school), I never had doubts about pursuing a STEM degree.
When you felt like giving up, what did you do? Who did you talk to?
I remember clearly those “give-up” moments from my student years; for example, when some tricky exam question caught me off-guard and I was aware that time was passing quickly. Usually, I would take a deep breath and tell myself that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I couldn’t figure it out; this would help me to calm down and re-evaluate the situation. Then I would try to write something down — some thoughts, some equations, etc. That would help me to refocus on the problem itself, and more often than not, I could make progress. In other situations, I would get support from family members and friends.
Does your job require travel? If so, where is the most unique/interesting place you’ve visited?
Attendance at summer schools and research conferences around the world is encouraged in my field. These provide great opportunities to share, learn, and find collaborators, as well as time to relax. In 2010, I attended a summer school on irradiation effects in materials in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which has been called the No.1 small town in the United States. We enjoyed invited talks in the mornings and tours in the afternoons, such as a visit to Los Alamos National Laboratory and Bandelier National Monument. We also had time to visit the historic downtown and enjoyed Mexican-style food and beverages. It was a most memorable experience.
What would you share with a student who wishes to pursue a career in your field?
Be curious and diligent.