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Ben Zhang ’17 to receive Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy

  • Jefferson Prize winner
    Jefferson Prize winner  Ben Zhang ’17 is a chemist, a blogger and a polyglot who is translating an art history book into Chinese. He could leave William & Mary as first author on as many as three scientific papers.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Ben Zhang has always been interested in complex systems.

He began by collecting maps of the intricate street system of his home city in China, Yangzhou, which dates to 486 BCE.

“My city was complicated in terms of its street structure, because it’s ancient, so I had maps of all that,” he explained. “I came into William & Mary looking for a class that dealt with maps or had something to do with the Earth.”

So he enrolled in Reading the Earth, a freshman seminar taught by Chancellor Professor of Geology Heather Macdonald, “an incredible mentor who encouraged me to get deeper into earth sciences.”

Zhang is this year’s recipient of William & Mary’s Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. Endowed by the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the award recognizes excellence in the sciences and mathematics in an undergraduate student and commemorates Jefferson’s relationship with Professor William Small. The namesake of the William Small Physical Laboratory, Prof. Small was Jefferson’s science and mathematics tutor at William & Mary. The Jefferson Prize is one of the awards traditionally bestowed on Charter Day, which commemorates the founding of the institution in 1693.

Zhang ’17 will graduate as a chemistry major with an impressive list of academic and research accomplishments. He enjoyed geology and even completed all the courses necessary for the geology major, but the idea of doing honors projects in two departments caused him to abandon, reluctantly, plans for a double major in chemistry and geology. But geology has left its mark.

“From geology, I started to appreciate complex systems, how convoluted a system can be and how a scientist’s endeavor is not in seeking the ultimate truth,” Zhang said. “That’s not what scientists are interested in: scientists are interested in explaining and coming up with a narrative about natural processes — and then applying that knowledge.”

He has made significant progress on his own scientific narrative in the laboratory of Elizabeth Harbron, professor of chemistry. Zhang joined a project that was investigating properties of conjugated polymer nanoparticles that would fluoresce — light up — when exposed to visible light. In a letter of nomination for the Jefferson Prize, Harbron outlined how Zhang took over leadership of the project, an immediately took the project to a new level, designing and executing a series of experiments.

“It is not unusual for outstanding students to get to this point in a project but then leave the deep data analysis to me. Not Ben!,” Harbron wrote. “He drilled deeply into the data on his own. Even when I would perform a separate analysis that he hadn’t seen before, he would reproduce it on his own to make sure he understood it and would then often figure out a way to take it a step further.”

Zhang is first author on a paper on the work that appeared in the journal Chemical Communications. The paper is the first to demonstrate off-to-on fluorescence switching with visible light in the class of nanoparticles they studied.

“From the way these molecules interact with light, we can learn a lot about their structural and energetic properties,” Zhang explained. “We can string different variables together and make mathematical rules and see how they evolve over time.

In preparing the paper, both Harbron and Zhang realized that there was a lot more work to be done on their polymer study. They planned to do two additional papers, a second that explains the mechanism more fully and a third that addresses potential applications, including introducing their unique, switchable system into cells.

“Right now we’re in the ‘fogland,’ I’ll call it, of working on the theory paper — the second paper,” Zhang said. Harbron says she expects the second and third papers to emerge from the fogland and be accepted for publication — with Zhang as first author — by the time he graduates or shortly thereafter.

Zhang is more than just an accomplished researcher, and he notes that “scientific analysis and synthesis is just one way in which we perceive the world.” He joined Humans of William & Mary a month after the founding of the photoblog, which was inspired by the based on the popular Humans of New York initiative. Zhang became co-director of Humans of William & Mary in 2015.

“I sort of major in people as well,” he explained. “I love writing about thoughts, and my fundamental perception of the world kind of bleeds into science.”

 Zhang started learning English at age 5 in China and he says immersion among his English-speaking peers allowed him to correct a few sounds and lose any remnants of an accent. Carey Bagdassarian, a fellow in the university’s Center for the Liberal Arts, used his his letter supporting Zhang’s nomination for the Jefferson Prize to outline some of Zhang’s non-science assets.

“He’s an accomplished photographer, a student of ancient and contemporary Chinese calligraphy, of linguistics and philosophy,” Bagdassarian wrote. “One afternoon, he gave me an hour-long, masterfully lucid explanation of the works of a Chinese poet, leaving me astounded. Ben came to this country from mainland China at 18 years old, and he speaks flawless English without an accent. His ear is that good.”

Zhang has not only mastered English, but became a deft enough Latinist to impress Georgia Irby, associate professor of classical studies at William & Mary. He did so well in the basic Latin 101-102 sequence that Irby brought Zhang into a “by invitation only” section for advanced classicists.

“Ben never missed a beat — he could extrapolate unfamiliar vocabulary and piece together extremely complex Latin,” Irby wrote. “Ben was essentially doing advanced level Latin after two semesters. And not just the grammar. He reads the language beautifully, is sensitive to the literary devices that Latin authors employ, and was able to pick up on intertextuality (e.g., where Ovid echoes Vergil).”

Zhang is putting his linguistic skills to use in a project that involves translating an art history text into Chinese. He’s done with the first draft of the translation of Art is More, by Jan Laurens Siesling. 

“I need to go back and revise,” he said. “My understanding of art history, and my approach to the language that I use in the book, have evolved a lot over the past year. I used a lot of classical Chinese phrases in the first draft and I want to go back over it and make it more accessible to the contemporary native Chinese speaker.”

His post-W&M plans include pursuing a chemistry Ph.D., specializing in theoretical chemistry, in a program to be determined. But, Zhang also said he wants to keep writing, a combination of interests that will help govern his choice of universities.  

 “One of my criteria is that I want to go to a school that has an East Asian library. Most of the major schools do. I’d like to be more immersed in Chinese literature,” he said.  There is an attrition in my Chinese skill that makes me nervous.”