Dr. Zhu Interview

Interview with Dr.Ding Zhu

Interviewed By: Raj Gautham Viswaprabakakaran & Phoebe Ho-Stone


Dr. Ding Zhu is a professor and the L.F Peterson ’36 Professor in the Petroleum Engineering Department at Texas A&M University. Her main research areas include general production engineering, well stimulation, complex well performance, and intelligent completion technology. Dr. Zhu earned her Bachelor degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Beijing University of Science and Technology and MS and PhD in Petroleum Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.

After graduating with a BS. in Mechanical Engineering, I started working for China National Offshore Oil Company. I was trying to learn to design the platform layout of surface production facilities. I was good at pumps but I didn’t know why we need to use them. So the company decided that it would be more beneficial if I knew what I was doing. (Laughter) So they sent me out to get the Master’s Degree in Petroleum Engineering.
This was actually related to the company that I was working for. I came here on a scholarship. We had about 200 young graduates who had to go through a selection process based on the outstanding performance, being able to speak English and having good engineering skills. The company had to select the best candidate. The selection process was very challenging. So, we all applied, and I was just lucky to be selected.
This is a very interesting story. My dad was actually a petroleum engineer and he had a goal for me so that when I grew up and went to college, I became a petroleum engineer. While growing up I spent my life on the oil field. So, I knew what it was and I kind of thought that petroleum engineering was too simple, and that I wanted to do something more sophisticated. That’s how I became a Mechanical Engineer. So after I graduated, my dad convinced me that I would have a much better career if I worked in the area that was more dynamic than mechanical engineering. He did have an influence on my decision to change from mechanical to petroleum engineering.
I didn’t want to be an engineer at the beginning. I always wanted to be a school teacher. Defining school teacher – I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. I grew up really liking to go to school and teach 4-5 year olds. I always tried to see if they picked up whatever I taught them. But when I was trying to decide on what major to take in college, my dad didn’t even give me a chance to say no to engineering. He just said that I had really good qualities to be a great engineer. He didn’t think that I could be anything else. In the culture that I grew up in, when your dad tells you something you just do it. You obey him because you believe that he knows what’s best for you.
No, I don’t have a big goal. I want to do my work on a day-by-day basis to be a good person. So I only have one goal – if I can understand my students, I should teach them whatever I know. If I could make them listen to me and they understood what I said, I did my job well today. Tomorrow I’m going to do the exact same thing. So I don’t have a goal of trying to be this or that. I’m really happy with my job and I really enjoy it. There aren’t many people who can say that they look forward to going to work but I have that feeling. Every morning, I really look forward to teaching my Production class, see the students’ faces, and find out if they agree or disagree with me.
Well, you know my native language is not English. Speaking in front of a big group of people is probably the most challenging thing non-native speakers have to face. There are a lot of people that can stand up and speak without thinking and then there are a lot of people who know a lot but don’t know how to speak in public. I remember my first time I had to present in front of a large group of people. I actually didn’t sleep for 2-3 days. I memorized all 24 slides in my presentation, and when I was closing my eyes I could see all the slides flashing past me. When you first start, all you think about is that you can’t do this. But once you get yourself into the technical mode, it will become much better. Even today after 11 years of being a professor, every single day when I walk into the classroom I’m still nervous. The students can’t tell (laughter). My strategy is this – if you aren’t nervous, you aren’t really paying attention to what you want to tell and you are going to give a bad speech. If you are nervous, that means you’ve studied what you want to talk about and you feel nervous about whether you can deliver the content correctly. I actually think being nervous is a good thing.
Well, a lot of the challenges I’ve faced are in regards to being a woman. This industry is still a male-dominated industry. However, I have to say that the industry really does treat women engineers fairly. It’s not like people don’t like to listen to us. This is very important to all the women engineers to be confident with yourself. If you start thinking that the audience won’t take you seriously because you are a woman, then they won’t take you seriously. Once you start speaking with confidence, people will listen to you because of your knowledge and capabilities, not because of who you are, where you are from, or how you look. Having gone through several of those experiences, I can now speak in public without shaking too much and try to give my opinion even when it’s different from others’. That’s probably the hardest part. Even when there are a lot of famous people in the audience that are much more powerful than I am, I just try to calmly tell them what I believe in. Eventually you can get to that point. It’s very challenging but very rewarding.
None! I can say that I did well in my studies and in some people’s eyes I did well in my career but I didn’t really do anything significant. I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished a whole lot when compared with other professors and other people in the industry. What I really feel that I’ve accomplished is that I’ve raised my two boys and they are both college students. They are doing well, so I feel like I’ve accomplished something as a person.
No, one is at Penn State and the other one is at Ohio State. That’s actually on purpose because I don’t want them to stay here with me. They probably wouldn’t have been able to be independent and would have always been looking for their mom to help them. So I told them it was time to go and figure out their capacity.
I don’t have any hobbies – I don’t feel like I’m talented in anything else. For the last 20 years, I’ve put a lot of effort in raising my children and being a good wife and mom while working. You can’t imagine how busy that is. I don’t play golf but I’ve been to every single golf course in this area because my sons play golf. I don’t like fishing but I’ve been to many lakes here that have fish (laughter) and have helped them to learn how to fish. When they started playing Little League Baseball, I learned every single rule. People have asked me what I am going to do with my spare time when my kids move on with their lives. Well, I just don’t get that much spare time to begin with. I like to watch movies and that’s probably the only real hobby I have. People joke that I like watching movies because it doesn’t take much talent (Laughter).
I enjoy old school movies. There are a few Al Pacino movies that I enjoy. I watched the Martian recently. I thought it was really interesting. I thought my boys would enjoy it too but they didn’t. They thought that the whole film was trying to be good. I said that it was good! They looked at me and said that I was going backwards and started enjoying movies that appeal to 12 year olds. That may be true (laughter).
I’m at the point where the time I’ve lived in China is the equal to the number of years that I’ve lived here. Deep inside, I consider myself a Chinese no matter how long I live in any other country. But, the strange thing is the cultural change. In China, people stay together and impact each other. The children obey their parents and the parents are responsible for the children and the wife and husband are always tied together. Everyone in your family has something to say about what you do and who you are. So when I came to America, the biggest cultural shock was that nobody told me what to do anymore. There was a lot of freedom here, which I think is really good. It gives you the chance to really discover yourself. I think after I turned 30, it was the first time I ever told my mom “I’m not going to listen to you. I respect your opinion but I do not agree.” That was the biggest shock that she ever had. (Laughter). After a while, I’m pretty sure my family started thinking that I was no longer Chinese. I like the Chinese culture but I see a lot of benefits [American culture] of being this way. So yes, I miss being in China, that’s where my roots and my family are. Would I have had a career like this over there, I may not have. I wouldn’t have had the chance to fully develop myself. Both countries have their advantages. In China, you feel that people care about you. Here, less people care about you but there is less pressure and more freedom to move around.
I always tell the freshmen that they need to figure out whether or not they are a suitable petroleum engineers. If you are a versatile person you will do well. Petroleum engineering makes you use all of your knowledge. It’s not about solving one little equation – anyone can do that. If you like problem solving and you are well balanced in knowledges then this is a good major for you. You may not be able to realize how exciting this industry is when you first come here. By the time you are a senior, I can guarantee you that all your roommates will say that you have a more interesting major than them.
In regards to the actual application process, we ask the students write a few essays and we interview them. We want the students to tell us who they are. We want to know something about them that shows their personality and represents their interest in problem solving. Do a little bit of research before you decide on the major. If you don’t know what to choose, talk to somebody. You can knock on my door and I’ll try to help you as much as I can. Try to get involved in SPE to get a better idea of what Petroleum Engineering is about.

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