Zhifeng Ren left China in 1990 for a position as a post-doctoral research associate in upstate New York, never expecting to be at the University of Houston — or even in the United States — 25 years later.
“But you go as things happen,” he said, explaining his philosophy of research, as well as his own extraordinary path through academia. One discovery leads to another.
And what a journey it has been.
Ren grew up in Nanbu County, a rural area in Sichuan province, at a time when scoring well on national exams offered one of the few routes out of the impoverished countryside. He was assigned to study mechanical engineering at the Sichuan Institute of Technology in Chengdu, just 100 miles — but a bone-rattling 12-hour bus ride through the twisting 200-mile road — from his home.
Rigorous scholarship eventually led him to a doctoral degree in condensed matter physics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing in 1990.
Ren came to the United States that spring, not in search of the American dream or as part of a grand plan but primarily to earn money to support his growing family, something that was still difficult to do in China at the time. His wife, Ruiping He, is also from Nanbu and joined him in New York after giving birth to the older of their two sons.
After nine years as a post doc and research professorship at State University of New York at Buffalo, Ren moved to a tenure-track position at Boston College, where he began gaining notice for work in a surprisingly wide range of scientific fields, from high-temperature superconductivity to carbon nanotubes.
“I didn’t plan to stay, to build a family in the United States,” he said. “I didn’t really have a plan. It was just … whatever happened.”
What happened was impressive, as Ren produced work in a diverse array of fields. Teaming up with collaborators at nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other universities, Ren saw his career flourishing. He is credited as the first scientist to grow aligned carbon nanotube arrays in large scale, to make nanostructured bulk thermoelectric materials with much improved properties and to synthesize hierarchical zinc oxide nanowires.
“Zhifeng impressed me as a creative and energetic scientist, engaging in both fundamental and applied research.” — Professor Paul Chu
He founded or co-founded three companies in the United States to commercialize his growing body of research.
Life was good. And about to get better.
UH’s internationally celebrated researcher Paul Chu was asked to speak at Boston College in 2011 on the 100th anniversary of the discovery of superconductivity. As an up-and-coming scientist, Ren had crossed paths over the years with Chu, founding director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH (TcSUH) and a well-known figure in the field, but that 2011 visit changed Ren’s direction.
Ultimately, Chu convinced Ren to move to Houston, where he is now MD Anderson Chair Professor of Physics and principal investigator at TcSUH.
“Zhifeng impressed me as a creative and energetic scientist, engaging in both fundamental and applied research,” Chu said. “He had an unusual entrepreneurial spirit along with a serious social conscience.”
Chu believed Ren could set an example for other scientists at the Center for Superconductivity and the Physics Department. The University’s top administrators agreed, and Ren arrived in late 2012, along with 19 members of his research group.
UH President Renu Khator had set a goal of increasing research expenditures to $200 million by 2020, and recruiting top research faculty was one key to achieving it. Ren’s interest in commercializing his research also made him an excellent fit for UH, which increasingly had begun to focus on transferring technology to the marketplace. His other accomplishments — including his stature as a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science and as a fellow of the American Physical Society — were also important to the University, which was pushing hard in its drive to earn and maintain Tier One status.
During the next two remarkable years, Ren’s group — which has now grown to 40 people, including 18 graduate students and 20 post-doctoral research associates — has filed 10 patent applications and published more than 28 papers in peer-reviewed journals each year. Ren has received more than $4.5 million in research funding, much of it from the Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Air Force or DOE’s Advance Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).
He still works with faculty at MIT, mostly on energy-focused projects and other outside institutions, but he also has developed relationships with researchers at UH, including a collaboration with Chu, Xiaoliu Zhang, a cancer researcher with the UH Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, and assistant physics professor Dong Cai, which has resulted in a dramatic new method for extracting molecules from live cells without disrupting cell development.
Ren quickly reaped new accolades after arriving in Texas and was named a fellow in the 2013 class of the National Academy of Inventors and honored with the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Science from The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas for 2014.
He hardly slowed down long enough to accept the awards and enjoy the acclaim. Why work so hard?
Mostly, he said, because he and the other members of his group simply want to make a difference in the world, whether they are investigating clean energy via thermoelectrics, revolutionizing consumer electronics with stretchable transparent conductors or breaking new boundaries in nanomedicine.
“And I like it,” he said of his long hours. “It’s the way we were raised in China. Everybody works very hard there. We didn’t have sports games. They educated us to work hard.”
For the past 25 years, Ren has exercised that work ethic here in the United States, although his collaborators have included scientists from China and his research group — like those of other academic labs — is a veritable global village, made up of young scholars from Asia and around the world. He has maintained strong personal ties to his homeland, as well, returning regularly to visit family and collaborators in China.
He and his wife also have raised money for various projects in their modest hometown over the years, starting with wells to provide clean water for the middle school and including money for student scholarships, awards for school teachers and for a community center for the village.
Ren’s older son recently graduated from MIT, while the younger is in graduate school at the University of California at San Diego. He and his wife also recently adopted two teenage daughters. They have grown up with the Western values of the United States. As a result, Ren remembers his older son vowing to never work the long hours that defined his father’s life.
As it turned out, that son founded his own tech startup, and his hours now mirror those of his industrious father. “It’s crazy,” Ren says, laughing.
Crazy, but he shows no sign of slowing down.
For Ren, there are more classes to teach, more papers to write, more grants to apply for, more reports to write and more students to advise on experiments and, most of all, more of the journey to be made.