Congratulations are in order for Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science (TECS) professor Xiangwu Zhang, who was recently named the Samuel S. Walker Distinguished Professor in Textile Innovation.

An internationally acclaimed leader in the development of nanostructured and multifunctional polymer, composite, fiber and textile materials, Zhang has secured more than $8 million in grants for research with practical applications such as energy storage and conversion, chemical and biological protection, composites and nanofinishing. Recent research projects include work with several types of batteries, fuel cells, supercapacitors, chemical and biological protection fabrics and more.

Zhang is also the NC State Wilson College of Textiles associate dean for research, an Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor and an inaugural University Faculty Scholar.

He earned his B.S. in polymer materials and engineering (‘97) and his Ph.D. in materials science and engineering (‘01) from Zhejiang University, served as a postdoctoral associate at the Center for Electrochemical Systems and Hydrogen Research at Texas A&M University, and joined NC State in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in 2006.

A prolific author, Zhang has published two books, 12 book chapters and more than 200 peer reviewed articles; his journal articles have been cited more than 10,000 times. Over the years, he has also demonstrated a commitment to mentorship, supervising two research assistant professors, 11 postdoctoral research associates, 43 visiting scholars, 21 Ph.D. students and 14 master’s students; 39 of his former group members have become university professors around the world.

Read on to learn more about his approach to mentorship, his research goals and what he does on the weekends.

What drew you to the textile field?

The textile field is where tradition meets innovation. Today’s textile research is addressing the major challenges that confront our society. New textile products are improving our health, saving our lives, protecting our environment, providing renewable energy solutions, and promoting sustainable future.

What did you want to do when you were a child?

I wanted to do many different things when I was a child. I wanted to become an artist, a policeman, a doctor, a world traveler, etc. When I got older, I [developed an] interest in science and different new technologies. This was probably one of the reasons why I eventually become a textile professor.

What are some big questions you want your research to one day answer?

Textiles today are innovative, life-saving, creative, global and thriving. The convergence of textiles and other technologies opens up the opportunity to take on many major challenges in the 21st century. I have been working on various areas of textile innovation, including novel polymer, composite, fiber,\ and textile materials. I want my research to one day lead to solutions for cleaner energy and environment, higher quality of life and sustainable progress for generations to come.

What do you like most about mentoring your students?

I have been mentoring, with compassion and respect, a large number of students. I believe that the most important skill a mentor has to develop is the ability to strike the right balance between helping students to make optimal choices in their work and at the same time providing them with enough freedom and encouragement to conduct study and research on their own. To achieve this, I have maintained an active research dialog and open interaction with the students by regularly meeting with them and maintaining an open-door policy.

I not only cultivate students’ skills in written and oral communication, critical thinking, inductive and deductive reasoning, creativity and open-mindedness, but also provide students with a positive work experience that will set a standard for future work-based relationships. What I like the most about mentoring my students is witnessing their growth and success.

Can you make a prediction about some future applications of your research? For example, how will we be interacting with energy storage in 10 years?

My research group in the Wilson College of Textiles is the first in the world to use solution spinning, electrospinning and centrifugal spinning technologies to fabricate advanced energy-storage fiber and textile materials. These advanced materials will lead to long-life, high-performance batteries that weigh less, take less space and deliver more energy. They can also be integrated into textile structures to store and convert energy so that our future fabrics and garments can see, hear, sense, communicate, regulate temperature, monitor health and change color.

What do you do in your spare time?

I love spending time with my family. I enjoy watching movies — both U.S. and international movies — [and] I also like outdoor activities.

About the Samuel S. Walker Distinguished Professorship

The Samuel S. Walker Distinguished Professorship supports the research of a world renowned faculty member in the field of textile innovation. It was established by Dudley (Textile Management ‘52) and Elizabeth Walker to honor Dudley’s father, Samuel, who enrolled in the Textiles department at NC State (then called the North Carolina College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts) in 1915. One of 10 students to graduate the program in 1918, he went on to establish the Virginia Underwear Company in Martinsville, Virginia, in 1928; the company went through several iterations and was eventually purchased by the VF Corporation.

Read more about the Walkers and their gift here.


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Written by Cameron Walker