Researcher profile: Zhen Zhang

Zhen Zhang in the lab at Ångström together with Nathan Netzer and Asta Makaraviciute, who are both doing their post-doc services in Zhen Zhang’s research team. PHOTO: MIKAEL WALLERSTEDT

“This is a major challenge”

Using nanotechnology, Zhen Zhang hopes that an entirely new kind of sensor for environmental control will become reality. To create conditions for the research, Zhen Zhang’s research team built up a process flow for the production of nanocomponents and an advanced test lab at the Ångström laboratory.

Diplomas are hanging on the walls in Zhen Zhang’s office at the Department of Engineering Sciences that show some of the awards he received in recent years. He was the recipient of the Ingvar Carlsson Award in 2013, became a Wallenberg Academy Fellow 2015 and, at the end of last year, was among 20 researchers named a research group leaders of the future by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research.

“It was actually a coincidence that I ended up in Sweden. I wanted to study semiconductor electronics and received an offer from KTH that I accepted.”

After finishing his PhD, he got a post-doc position followed by a permanent research position at IBM in New York where he stayed for five years.

“I enjoyed it, but my wife prefers to live in Sweden. It’s a better country to live in when you have kids,” he notes.

He came to Uppsala University in 2013 and began the work of putting together his research team. The goal is to use nanotechnology to be able to manufacture microelectronic sensors that can read charged particles in fluids. Among other things, the technology will be able to be used to monitor levels of pollutants in water or do other kinds of environmental controls. 

“We will hopefully also be able to produce sensors that can be used to analyse biomolecular samples, for example. It’s a major challenge, but in a few years, we will hopefully be able to tell if it’s possible or not.

The research team devoted the past three years to building up the process flow where they produce the electronic nanocomponents needed in the research. The team has also built up a laboratory where they test the properties of the components.

“It’s an advanced lab were we can also map electronic interaction both in fluids and with solid materials. It’s new and it’s unusual to be able to do both kinds of measurements in the same lab.”

Right now, the research team is working on designing the interfaces that can determine what substances it is the sensors are sensing.

“It’s about interdisciplinary research where we need knowledge from different areas like chemistry and biotechnology.”

As research group leader in an international and interdisciplinary group, high demands are set on academic leadership. Zhen Zhang points out the importance of choosing the right employees and building up an environment where people support each other.

“If you don’t have the right people, it doesn’t matter how good you are at leading, it won’t provide satisfactory results. It’s also important to have a clear vision and work on communication, both internally in the group and externally.”

He also feels that one of the leader’s most important tasks is having the courage to make decisions.

“This is probably opposite to the Swedish consensus culture, but in large groups, it’s almost impossible for everyone to be in agreement all the time. So when a decision is to be made, you have to make a decision for the best of the research. Making decisions is also about taking responsibility.”

Josefin Svensson


Facts: Zhen Zhang

Title: Associate Senior Lecturer and Docent in Engineering Physics at the Department of Engineering Sciences.
Age: 38 years old.
Family: Wife and two sons.
Current: At the end of last year, he was one of 20 researchers to be named the research group leaders of the future by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research. The award is accompanied by a research grants of SEK 12 million.
Interests: Badminton, photography and travel.
Last book read: Teams, leadership and coaching by Thomas Sewerin.
Last film seen: The Martian.
Makes me happy: My family, good results in research and teaching and when I succeed in capturing some nice moments with my camera.
Makes me angry: Nonsense discussions.