Xuan Zhou’s UM-Dearborn homecoming

March 20, 2024

Xuan Zhou, the first-ever graduate of a UM-Dearborn doctoral program, is now a faculty member in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. He couldn't be happier about the life twists that led him here — and led him back.

Surrounded by lab equipment, Associate Professor Xuan Zhou poses for a portrait in his UM-Dearborn battery lab.
Photo by Emily Barrett-Adkins

The first time Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Xuan Zhou heard of the University of Michigan-Dearborn he was a 25-year-old first-year Ph.D. student at Xi’an Jiaotong University in China. UM-Dearborn Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Professor Yubao Chen, an alum of Xi’an Jiaotong, and then-Provost Robert Simpson had traveled to Xi'an to lay the groundwork for a new 3+2 undergraduate-master’s program that would give Chinese engineering students a fast-track to an American graduate degree. Zhou already had a master’s in materials science in hand, so restarting his undergraduate career didn’t make much sense for him. But when he heard Simpson and Chen’s presentation on the college’s other master’s options, Zhou felt tempted by an unexpected opportunity to change course. “At that time, I was feeling a little confused about my future, and I was really interested in automotive systems engineering, because there were all these different concentrations, including for materials, which is what my background was in,” Zhou remembers. “When you grow up in China, it's pretty exciting to think about studying in the U.S., because that’s where the most advanced technologies were. So I was thinking maybe this was my opportunity to do that, and then I’d probably come back to China and start my career.”

Zhou decided to take the leap. He applied for the automotive systems engineering master’s program at UM-Dearborn, and when he was accepted, he dropped his Ph.D. studies and headed for Michigan. He recalls he was the only student out of the cohort of four from Xi’an who already had an advanced degree. But retracing a few steps in his academic career didn’t bother him. His TA positions with Chen and Professor Elsayed Orady provided full financial support for his new program. And he landed a research assistant position with Professor Pravansu Mohanty — a fellow materials guy who was one of the few UM-Dearborn professors scoring big national grants at that time — so he could continue to do research. He also loved the vibe of the American campus. “It wasn’t just the change in place, it was the culture,” Zhou says. “In the U.S., we are encouraged to ask questions and bring up our ideas. Things have changed a lot in the last 15 years, but at that time, the instruments and technology at the UM-Dearborn campus were also much more advanced compared to China. And the professors — they had a global mindset.” A year later, when his then-girlfriend, now-wife was able score her own spot in a UM-Dearborn master’s program, Michigan really started to feel like a home away from home. 

By 2007, Zhou was nearing completion of his master’s work, which left him with a choice about whether to go back home. It turned out, however, that UM-Dearborn was just launching its first Ph.D. programs in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the first doctoral programs at the university. While some of his fellow students set their sights on more established programs, Zhou says he didn’t really worry about being among UM-Dearborn’s first doctoral candidates. Mohanty was a big reason for that. Zhou knew that a successful Ph.D. experience wasn’t just about the university — it was about your advisor. Mohanty, he recalls, was a “big deal” — an adventurous researcher who was landing large grants to study everything from artificial joints for injured military service members to battery technologies, which, at a time before the EV and green energy revolutions, was still very much an emerging space. So Zhou, again, decided to put his faith in UM-Dearborn. Over the next few years, he worked closely with Mohanty on a variety of projects. After he graduated in 2012 as the first Ph.D. graduate from UM-Dearborn, he landed a tenure-track faculty position at Kettering University in Flint, where his expertise in the now-hot area of battery engineering made him an obvious choice.

In full regalia, Xuan Zhou accepts his diploma at a commencement ceremony in front of his mentor Professor Pravansu Mohanty.
Zhou accepts the first doctoral degree in UM-Dearborn history at a commencement ceremony in 2012. His mentor, Professor Pravansu Mohanty, is second from the left. 

Kettering was Zhou’s home for nine years, during which time he taught classes in circuits and electronics and continued his research on batteries. But in 2018, he began wondering if he was outgrowing his post. In particular, Kettering only had master’s programs, and thus master’s students, and Zhou’s work was increasingly requiring research assistants who would stick around for more than a couple years. So he began looking for faculty positions at universities with Ph.D. programs, and it turned out UM-Dearborn’s College of Engineering and Computer Science was in the midst of a growth — and hiring — spurt. He says he had doubts about leaving Kettering — until he arrived for the first round of interviews at UM-Dearborn. “I knew every inch of this place, so when I stepped back onto the campus, all the memories suddenly came back to me,” Zhou remembers. “I walked by Professor Orady’s old office, and he had recently passed away. I bumped into my old professors in the hallways. I also saw how much had changed — there was so much more research going on. It just felt like if they gave me a chance to come back, this is where I should be.” In 2019, it looked like everything was on track for that to happen. In the summer, he got the offer for a position that would start in 2020. He and his old professors/soon-to-be colleagues were even talking about which courses he should teach. Then, the pandemic hit, and with it, came a hiring freeze. Zhou’s position — and his dream of returning to UM-Dearborn — wasn’t going to work out after all. 

Zhou, however, didn’t give up. After the pandemic started to ease, and the college was hiring again, he applied for another position. When he came back to campus for his first interview, they gave him the complimentary, if unnecessary, campus tour, where he, again, chatted with old professors and was flooded with fond memories. This time when he got the offer letter, there’d be nothing to trip up the homecoming. 

Zhou finds it hard to describe what it means to him to be back. “This is a place that has literally changed my life and my family’s life,” he says. “It gave me my education. It gave my wife her education. And now, they’ve given me a chance to come back, and I’ve gotten such a warm welcome from Professor Paul Richardson and Professor Wencong Su, the two chairs of the department. All the support I’ve gotten over the years, it’s really unbelievable to me. I guess now that I’m in my 40s, it makes me feel like I want to do that for my students. Whatever they need, whether it’s advice about careers or helping them do research, I want to do that for them, because that’s what my professors here did for me.” On that front, Zhou has hit the ground running. Working alongside him now in his Advanced Energy Storage and Application Laboratory are some familiar faces: two of his former master’s students from Kettering who have followed him here as Ph.D. candidates. It’s the first of many opportunities he hopes to have to pay it forward.


Story by Lou Blouin