Features

Turtle Tales: The Scientist’s Soft Skills

BRIAN SHOBE, Turtle Tales Columnist

Jing Zhang'07 with her son Aiwen. Photo courtesy of Jing Zhang.

When Jing Zhang‘07 decided to apply to Beloit College in 2002, not only had she never visited campus, she had no idea where Wisconsin was. But thanks to individualized attention from admissions and a World Affairs scholarship, Zhang decided to enroll.

The transition from Chengdu, China to Beloit was challenging. Zhang faced culture shock, climate shock (Chengdu is subtropical and Beloit isn’t exactly known for its heat waves) and a language barrier. In order to keep up with her intro to psychology course, for example, Jing remembers recording every lecture and listening to them while she washed dishes in Commons.

After a semester of ESL and a supportive FYI, however, Jing settled into what she now fondly remembers as a close-knit community. She also began to explore. She took ballroom dance (to this day one of her favorite classes), Egyptian hieroglyphs and with the support of the Freeman Foundation Asian Studies Fund, Japanese courses over the summer. Jing felt most at home in math and biology and, not wanting to have to pick one, declared a Mathematical Biology major. But she was also drawn to learning new languages and cultures, so she continued learning Japanese, designed her own minor–Language and Communication–and spent one summer in Japan.

“I like that Beloit encourages you to go out of your comfort zone, out of things you think you’re good at … to learn about a part of yourself you probably never knew about,” she says.

Having discovered through a summer internship that she didn’t enjoy basic lab science work, Zhang decided to follow another curiosity after graduation and enrolled in a business school. After completing her master’s in management, she landed a job in health care consulting. And after a few years of experience there, she discovered a way to pursue all of her interests: a Ph.D. program in Biomedical Informatics at the University of California, San Diego.

All of this, she says, wouldn’t have been possible without the breadth of her liberal arts education. While she excelled in the “hard sciences,” it was the “soft skills”–the writing, the public speaking, and the cross-cultural competency–that gave her a competitive edge.

She elaborates, “Sometimes people think a hard science major doesn’t have the capability to connect well with different audiences and people and I think doing that minor gave me the chance to reflect on and prove that I understand the different ways people cross cultures and communicate effectively.”

In her study of the emerging field of Biomedical Informatics, Zhang will synthesize all of her experiences and skills with the perspectives of math, management, life science, medicine, engineering and computer science to explore how advanced information systems might lower the costs and increase the quality of healthcare. Amidst national debates about healthcare costs, this goal seems timely.

Zhang’s vision? “Information technology has revolutionized a lot of areas,” she says. “But in healthcare it’s long overdue. There’s a lot of potential to improve healthcare and efficiency in general. I’m optimistic.”

Side note from Jing: Don’t take Beloit College van rides for granted. It was on one such van ride to Friday Night Flicks that Jing met her (now) husband, Paul Abels‘08. They currently reside  in New Jersey with their son Aiwen (pictured above). 

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