Sloan Mentor Highight

Dr. Qiong Zhang is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Dr. Zhang holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering from the North-West Institute of Architecture Engineering and master’s degree from Tsinghua University. In 2001, she earned her Ph.D. from Michigan Technological University. Dr. Zhang’s research focuses on sustainability assessment, process modeling and system modeling with applications on water and wastewater systems, solid waste systems, water-energy-nutrient nexus and critical interdependent infrastructures. She is also actively integrating systems thinking and sustainability into engineering education. Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation; including  an NSF CAREER award (2015), Environmental Protection Agency, Water Reuse Foundation, and the Florida Energy Systems Consortium. Dr. Zhang is a two-time recipient of the USF Outstanding Faculty Award (2015 and 2016).  She is also the recipient of a Best Paper Award from the Environmental Engineering Division of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), a Best Paper Award from the Florida Section of the American Water Works Association, a New Faculty Research Award from the Southeast Division of the American Society for Engineering Education, and an USF Faculty Outstanding Research Achievement Award (2017).

Qiong Zhang

While at USF, Dr. Zhang has mentored 29 research assistant professors/postdocs and graduate students, including 14 women and 6 underrepresented students.  She has served as a faculty advisor for several student organizations: USF American Water Works Association Student Chapter (2013-present), USF Society of Women Engineers (2012-2015), USF Chinese Student Christian Fellowship (2009-present), and USF Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers (2015-present). Dr. Zhang is a member of the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors (AEESP), American Water Works Association (AWWA), the Water Environment Federation (WEF), and American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Recently, Dr. Zhang responded to questions from Michelle Henderson, President of the UCEM Student Leadership Council regarding her research, career journey, mentoring philosophy, and the importance of diversity and inclusion in STEM.

1. How would you describe your research including the broader impact? 
My background is environmental engineering and my long-term goal in the area of research is to transform the design and operation of critical infrastructures through a system approach. My research focuses on process modeling, sustainability assessment and system modeling, with applications in water systems, wastewater and resource recovery systems, stormwater management, water-energy nexus and critical interdependent infrastructure. It has been recognized that infrastructure systems including water and energy are complex, nonlinear, and interconnected involving natural resources, human components and engineered systems. Managing these systems through a system approach will provide societal benefits that enhance community well-being in terms of reliable service (e.g., water supply), resource conservation, environmental restoration, and regional and local economic development. 

2. Can you discuss your journey as a researcher and current position at USF? 
I was trained in the area of water and wastewater treatment through my B.S. and M.S. studies in China. My education background provided me a solid understanding of physical and chemical processes related to water and wastewater treatment. With a desire to explore and learn, I started my PhD journey at Michigan Tech in 1997. My dissertation research expanded my expertise to multimedia fate and transport modelling and its application in environmental impact assessment and life cycle assessment. After receiving my Ph.D., I worked part time for three years because my daughter was born in 2003. I was a postdoctoral researcher and later a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Michigan Tech. I was one of six founding members of the Sustainable Futures Institute (SFI) at Michigan Tech and the operations manager of the SFI before joining USF in 2009. This experience helped me gain the perspectives from different disciplines and the capability to work with people from different background. It prepared me for my current position at USF as a professor. My journey as a researcher and current position at USF is a combination of intentional effort (things I can control, e.g., do a good job in whatever I am doing right now, prepare myself) and unintentional circumstances (things I cannot control, e.g., opportunities).

3. What do you find most rewarding about your work as a professor? What makes this work meaningful and interesting to you?  As a professor, I think the most rewarding about my work is to see students’ success in learning and their career. I think the output from academia is knowledge created in the form of publications and innovations, but more importantly the knowledge embodied and carried to future through students. This work is meaningful and interesting to me because I am creating a future through my own learning and working with students.

4. Did you have mentors early in your career who inspired you? 
Yes, I had mentors in my career. My MS advisor in China and my PhD committee members, such as Dr. Mihelcic. They inspired me to see how I can use my knowledge to solve the real-world problems and be able to help others.

5. What have been the most important qualities in the mentors that you’ve had?  Also, can you discuss your own approach to mentoring? 
The most important qualities in the mentors that I have had is that they are able to see my potential and constantly communicate that to me. This encouraged me to see a better self and put effort to make it a reality. In terms of my own approach to mentoring, I try to understand the values and goals of my students, work with them in terms of short-term and long-term plans, provide timely feedback, and celebrate their achievements along the journey.

6. What are the attributes or skills that you believe are important to have as a professor?  Also, why would you encourage students to consider careers in academia? 
The attributes/skills that are important to have as a professor, I believe, are learning, big picture thinking (or systems thinking), communication, and organization. I would encourage students to consider careers in academia because of its long-term societal impacts (both in terms of producing knowledge/innovations and transforming future generations), learning environment, and flexible schedule.

7. How do you like to spend your time outside of research and maintain a work/life balance?  
I set priorities in my life and plan my time according to my priorities. When I am on campus, I focus on research and work. When I am not on campus, I try to guard my time in terms of scripture reading, family time, exercise, and church. For me it is important to have a balance in spiritual, physical, and relational aspects of my life with my work.

8. Why do you believe increased diversity and inclusion in your discipline and overall in STEM is important? 
I believe increased diversity and inclusion is important in any environment because we are all limited in our understandings and perspectives. With increased diversity and inclusion in STEM, we are able to understand and solve complex problems, recruit more diverse and talented students, and build a more inclusive society in long run.

To learn more about Dr. Zhang’s research, please visit:

Faculty Page  
Modeling and Assessment of Sustainable Systems Research Group  
A Collaborative Approach to Harmful Algal Blooms in Florida’s Largest Freshwater Lake