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【2015 Newly Elected Academician】Zhang Pingwen: A life of studying and contributing

MAR . 02 2016
Peking University, Feb.29, 2016: In Zhang Pingwen’s office, three shelves of books occupy a huge orange cabinet, with some certificates and trophies in it, alongside with several handicrafts that “my students sent to me as gifts”, Zhang says. There are clothes on the sofa and three pairs of sneakers by the wall. Zhang opened a cabinet and pulled out a tie. “What about this one?” He asked, wearing it.
“I stay at my office from Monday to Sunday”, Zhang says. This room is a living room rather than an office for Zhang. Graduating from Peking University in 1992, he has been teaching computational mathematics at the School of Mathematical Sciences since then. In some way, 31years of living here makes this campus his second home.

Zhang Pingwen
Take the different way

Zhang Pingwen has shown the gift of mathematics since his childhood. He was top 5 in the mathematics competition in Hunan Province despite his rural background. In 1984, he started his fundamental math study at Peking University. Out of the passion for math, Zhang once enrolled in seven courses of his department in one semester. However, undergraduate curriculum couldn’t satisfy his appetite for knowledge. He began to learn postgraduate courses in advance when he was a senior.
Owing to the limited budget, Zhang decided to continue his study at Peking University while many fellows were going abroad. He chose computational mathematics for his master’s degree, which he believed was a practical major. It could be used not only in the national defense or industrial manufacture, but also in the weather forecast and car navigation. “The influence of computational mathematics is hard to spot, but it is its algorithms and models that build the key foundation of these achievements,” Zhang said.
At that time, it would take six years for a student to finish his master and doctor’s degree, which was too long for Zhang who wanted to support the family as soon as possible. He found Prof. Ying Long’an to be his tutor and help him finish the study in four years. Zhang was so hard-working that he finished all the postgraduate courses in one year and began his doctor’s study in the second year.
Zhang arrived at Peking University in June, four months ahead of the semester of his doctoral study. The whole dormitory building was almost empty, providing him with a quiet environment to study alone. “I was the only person in my room. Sometimes I needed to turn the radio up loud to cope with my fear at night.” Zhang went to Prof. Ying’s home for enquiry and discussion every day, which helped him to finish a difficult book in only 11 days.
His hard work for the past five years became the solid base of his doctoral research. He published plenty of dissertations with high quality and got the doctor’s degree in 1992. He was the first one to “finish the doctoral study in advance” in math department.
In 1994 Zhang was promoted to be an associate professor and two years later he became the professor. In 1998, he was appointed dean of the Department of Scientific and Engineering Computing at the age of 32, the youngest one among 8 people in his department.

Find the correct solution

After becoming Dean of the department, Zhang Pingwen found in shock that only 7 undergraduate students were willing to continue the study of computational math in more than 160 undergraduates. “How can we open the courses for only 7 students?” He took several active postgraduates to talk with them door by door one night, introducing the prospect of computational mathematics. The team was expanded into about 20people finally.
This “persuading” behavior stopped after three years because Zhang found the crux of the problem: students know little about the computational mathematics and this major requests high level of math and computer operating skills simultaneously. The key to this situation, Zhang concluded, is that 20 people are enough when they are the best.
Another important contribution Zhang made was the revision of the textbooks. He laid emphasis on the practical appliance in computational mathematics and added operating practices at the end of every chapter.

Revised textbooks finished by Zhang Pingwen and his colleagues
As for the overseas study, Zhang were not afraid of “losing talents” like many other teachers. Instead, he tried his best to help every student achieve their dream of studying abroad. He set the guiding meeting every year and recommended the best student to their dream universities so that more opportunities can be left for other people. Also, Zhang built the bridge of communication between students and foreign schools, set up a wechat group named “leaping group” for seniors and solved their problems. Students succeeded in learning abroad were invited to share the experience and information to junior fellows, building a virtuous cycle.
At the meantime, Zhang made efforts to improve the domestic academic construction by inviting foreign scholars to teach in the department. Undergraduates also participated in his scientific research to promote their comprehensive academic competence.

Find your interest
Zhang thinks that scientific research requires the ability of logic thinking and imagination. Researchers may fail many times on the way to success. Thus the researcher must have passion and the quality of persistence. “Do what you like and persist in it. Only then can you make success.”

He considers himself “lucky” for the help he got during his study and career, “I learn a lot from those who helped me, the most important of which is to stay positive and help whoever in need”, Zhang says.
Written by: Wang Zehua
Edited by: Shengnan Yan