To most people, “I had to go there to get here” is a book selling for $3.80 used on Amazon, but for University of Hawaiʻi alumni who want to teach at their alma mater, it’s a necessity. That is why one of the most prolific engineering students to ever come out of UH is now pursuing a graduate degree at UC Berkeley.
Less than a year ago, George Zhang was the Hawaiʻi Council of Engineering Societies’ student of the year, the recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship award, and one of just four students featured at the College’s annual banquet, before a crowd of over 800. He achieved more than the average student, but it’s the growth of the middle school students he mentored at Barclay Middle School while pursuing his undergraduate degree that he considers to be his greatest accomplishment. “For two years, through tutoring and listening, I saw them develop into motivated, high-achieving young adults,” says George. Thanks to his help, those students went on to win 2nd place at the Science Olympiad regionals.
Were it not for a certain Physics teacher at Punahou, the help those students received may have been applied elsewhere, “Mr. Gearen’s ability to explain almost anything in simple terms awed me. I became fascinated by electromagnetics, more so than any other topic I learned in school. So naturally, I chose electrical engineering when the time came,” George fondly recalls.
Thanks to YouTube, he found the inspiring educators that would guide him along the next leg of the journey. “I came across a video where Professor Ohta and his grad student—Jonathan Dang—were discussing their group’s work in liquid metal, Jon came across as a diligent and accomplished, yet humble researcher—something I aspired to be.” To George, this spoke volumes of the quality of mentorship that he would receive as a student of Professor Aaron Ohta.
When asked about his protégé, Professor Ohta recalls a time when George did something extraordinary. He was a junior when they attended the 2016 IEEE International Microwave Symposium in San Francisco and had a paper accepted, which meant that he would be presenting. This surprised Ohta. “He’s the youngest student I ever had to have a paper accepted at this conference,” he explains. “Typically, the presenters are graduate students, professors, and professional engineers!” For that remarkable achievement, George deflects credit to his other mentor, Professor Wayne Shiroma. “Being surrounded by high-achieving people pushes me to work harder, so when Professor Shiroma saw promise in my preliminary results, it encouraged me,” he insists. After that meeting, George says he felt like pushing ahead and attempting the impossible. He built a fully working liquid-metal microwave switch and wrote the paper that got him into the symposium in just three weeks!
As impressive as that was, it may be outdone by his latest endeavor—following in Professor Ohta’s footsteps. “I’m attending grad school in hopes of becoming a professor!” George exclaims. “Professor Ohta graduated from Berkeley as a strong researcher and great mentor. I hope I can do the same.” Looking back, he counts his two years with Shiroma, Ohta, and their research team–especially former graduate student Dr. Ryan Gough–among his finest. But like the 1982 Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Wasted on the Way,” George too wishes that he had started long before he did. “I could have learned and contributed much more with them if I had had more time,” he laments. If all goes well, he may just get that chance. Ideally, George would like to teach in Hawaiʻi, to stay closer to family and to give students what his mentors gave to him, thus going there to get back here.