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New Wilson College Faculty Member Yang Zhang Seeks Practical Applications for His Research

Portrait of Yang Zhang (left) in blue lab coat (in focus) with lab equipment and neon dyes in beakers (right, out of focus)

By Raymond Jones

When Yang Zhang accepted a position this summer in the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science, he did so for the same reason many outstanding scholars come to the Wilson College of Textiles. He wanted to work in a place where he could find practical applications for his research. 

As one of the Wilson College’s most recent hires, Zhang (whose first name is pronounced “Young”) is an assistant professor and principal investigator of the Molecular Analytics and Photonics (MAP) lab. As the fall semester gets underway, Zhang is focusing his efforts on getting the research lab up and running. Later on, he’ll take on teaching responsibilities, specializing in such topics as dyes and finishing, color science and advanced imagery techniques.

Chemistry research for the greater good

Zhang’s research interests are indeed diverse. He says that what makes his research relatively unique is that it “involves a scientific focus integrating organic dye chemistry, along with a more technical focus on optical imaging instrumentation.”

This is an ideal combination, Zhang says, because of his particular interest in understanding the properties of various materials and life processes at the molecular level. Among other things, he employs extremely sophisticated imaging equipment, some of which he built, to visualize and help determine the properties of individual molecules. 

This work is summarized on the MAP lab’s website as follows: “The MAP lab develops fluorescent and stimuli-responsive materials and single-molecule methods to color-map and engineer the nanoscopic biological and man-made world.”

If all that sounds technical, it is. But there’s nothing hard to decipher about Zhang’s long- standing desire to find better ways to make a more sustainable future possible. He enjoys using the insights from his research to assess and reduce the environmental impact of textile manufacturing processes. In his words: “I like finding new ways to use chemical tools for human well-being.”  

Extensive teaching and research experience

In terms of academic background, Zhang earned his first credential, a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, at Qilu University of Technology in Jinan, China. He is, however, no stranger to life in the United States. 

He studied for his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, where he also taught introductory chemistry classes and labs. He then spent five years as a postdoctoral fellow, and later a research assistant professor, at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. 

Having spent so much time in areas where the climates were extreme – heat in Miami and cold in suburban Chicago – he’s pleased to finally be living in an area with a more balanced climate.

One of the things that really drew him to NC State, however, was the university’s history of  strong relationships with counterparts in textile manufacturing. 

“I like being in a place where I have the opportunity to work closely with people in the industry who can benefit directly from my expertise in dyes, colors and imaging,” he says.

He’s also dedicated to cultivating these same skills and sensitivities in the students he works with. In the near future, he’ll be collaborating with several graduate students to get his lab equipped and fully functional. He describes the students he’s met so far as “capable, well-trained and enthusiastic.”

Warm welcome at Wilson College

Zhang is appreciative of the warm welcome he’s received from Wilson College’s faculty and top administrators. 

“They’ve all been supportive,” he says, “especially when it comes to providing the resources necessary to outfit the lab space where my students will be working. And I have to say that I’ve truly never worked with a better group of administrative support staff. They are the best!”

Despite his reputation for scientific and technical expertise, Zhang is hopeful that students and colleagues will not look at him as a one-dimensional “lab geek.” He’s proud to have earned a Best Teaching Assistant award at Miami and says the opportunity to mentor students – at both the undergraduate and graduate levels – is one of the most attractive parts of his job. 

“I like to connect academic studies to real-world problem-solving,” he says. “I think that helps students to feel more fully engaged in the search to find better ways of doing things.”