Interview

What were some of your interests when you were growing up?

One of the biggest interests I had was reading novels including the classics. Huge books! On the other hand, I enjoyed outdoor activities a lot. I was on the team to train for track and field, and that was pretty good. That was fifth grade. I also enjoyed going to my dance classes. I think I was a very clumsy kid. I couldn't do the sophisticated movements. But I still like to dance. I like it a lot.

I didn't pay much attention to my studies. But it was a special time. I grew up in China when education was not that important. Education in science was not that important. What was important was always political, ideological, and such. So we basically played all the time when I was ten years old. I don't remember any hard lessons. We just played.

When did you first become interested in science?

I became interested in science just by accident. Pure luck. I told you that during my whole elementary school years, studies were not all that important. Teachers were instructed not to give us a hard time. There was an entrance examination to advance from the elementary school to the junior high in China. Then they grouped students, more promising students, into a better school.

We had the exam, and I had a very high score. I was number one in my class. I had a chance to go to the best school.

There, the teachers were very different from what I experienced in my elementary school. I developed an enormous interest in chemistry because everything started to make sense. You put your fingers in powders and the color changed. I could make things change. That made me feel like getting into science. Especially chemistry.

I dropped my track and field team. I refused to go. I thought now I'm going to be a devoted kid. I only participated in the science programs. But I still kept my dance classes.

When did you become interested in pursuing a career in science?

In my undergraduate study, I majored in geophysics, that meant in my university that we were trained in a branch of physics. What we actually learned wasn't structural geology, geodynamics, or plate tectonics. We learned all of classic mechanics, from fluid mechanics to dynamics to quantum physics. We were trained as physicists. We learned all of the mathematics and physics. I found what I enjoyed tremendously was doing laboratory experiments.

I also liked the fact that once we started to do some projects, I got one where I was correcting data from large-scale strain measurements. You had to use your knowledge of physics and your mathematical training to look at the factors entered into the final data recording. I felt people needed the results. I felt this is part of real life and I'm going to contribute a little bit to it, to that real life, to that project. That made me feel very proud.

Then I graduated and became a masters student. But I felt like that was not enough. I realized that there were many science programs in America, and I applied to graduate school here and got admitted. I didn't know much about life in America, so the first school to send me an admission letter, I said Okay to that school. I didn't know that much about any of the schools.

As a woman have you faced any challenges?

Oh, yes, my son! He's a challenge! I think right now, there are many family responsibilities. I think that is the biggest factor that will affect my research and how effective I can be. I don't see much difference between any woman or man researcher when they do not have family responsibilities. We all try to beat deadlines by not sleeping at night. We work long hours and weekends. But with children, with kids, it has become harder and harder for me to extend my hours.

I do feel that in the long term if I'm less efficient than I could have been, that it is most probably due to my family responsibilities. Which I don't have much to complain about because kids are important to me. They bring another aspect to your life.

What continues to excite you or inspire you about your research?

What I like about this profession is that I'm part of the big picture. Part of something bigger than bringing my salary home. I think it is really nice being paid to do something that also satisfies my curiosity. I feel that at the same time I'm working I'm achieving something.

What continues to inspire you about your job?

I think what inspires me is just figuring things out. Just going out there and trying to understand what's going on. And coming in everyday and thinking, "Hmm, nobody's answered that question. I guess I better work on it." Just going out and trying to figure it out, and having enough self-confidence to say, "I really think it is this. Oops, my bad. It wasn't that. Maybe it's this."

And you know what I really love is interacting with graduate students, undergraduates, and high school students. I love having them in my lab and asking all sorts of questions about everything. They ask you just the oddest questions that I should know the answer to, but I don't. I can't even begin to tell you about the questions that they ask that really make me think about what I do. It brings me back. What am I doing? What is important? I just love it.

What advice do you have for people who are thinking of a career in oceanography?

I don't know whether I have specific advice for people who want to become oceanographers. But I do have general advice for people, especially girls who want to be scientists. You should not give up. You should do some difficult task. My experience is that no matter how difficult a task is if you start from step one and you follow it and you don’t give up, you will eventually reach the top. You start to build confidence. That confidence will benefit every aspect of your life.

What else do you like to do?

Before my son was born (my son is 22 months old) I had a lot of freedom. I liked to go traveling, go hiking, do exercise, and go to dance class. But now I can't do any of that. I play with Legos.

Wen-lu Zhu

  • Associate Scientist, Department of Geology and Geophysics
  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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