Junsong Zhao (MS ’11)

21 Mar, 2023

Junsong Zhao came to KAUST with the founding class in 2009 after learning about the university at a seminar series in China. At the time, Zhao and his friends were applying to grad schools in the US, but Zhao was intrigued by the newness of KAUST and the opportunity to study in Saudi Arabia.

“The fact that KAUST was a brand-new university was actually the biggest reason why I applied, says Zhao. “I was also excited about the rare opportunity to travel to and live in Saudi Arabia. After researching KAUST on my own, I realized how many faculty members I was familiar with as they were experts in their fields, another big selling point.”

Zhao was accepted to a program in New York, but turned it down to do his at KAUST. 

“I do not regret my decision to go to KAUST instead of starting my right away in the US,” he says. “But I had a lot to learn.”

“I arrived during Ramadan, and I experienced culture shock on the flight over. All of the Hajj travelers were wearing their traditional clothes and I felt like a stranger for the first time. Once at KAUST, I quickly came to learn about the culture and religion of the country and partook in the evening Iftar celebrations. This was truly the first time I was immersed in a different lifestyle and my first opportunity to learn how to respect the differences that came with it. I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Everything was new and exciting.”

Zhao’s thesis centered on the investigation of the cellular process of demethylation in the model plant species, Arabidopsis. This process is important in maintaining normal gene regulation, but there are fundamentals of its mechanisms we still do not understand. Zhao’s research on this process required him to plant over 1,000 tiny seeds in agar dishes, a task requiring a steady hand and great patience.

“My mom and dad are farmers,” says Zhao. “They wanted me to do well in school so I would not have to be a farmer. I told my mom that I had to plant over 1,000 plants as part of my degree. She laughed at the irony of the situation and said I never planted that many plants at home but that she knew it would require a lot of patience, and she was right.”

“To this day, I treasure my time spent tediously moving those tiny seeds one by one across  dishes with tweezers because of how well it taught me patience. That skill alone helped me get through my and all other aspects of my life.”

Zhao completed his  in 2011 and went on to do a at The University of Southern California. He is currently the director of software engineering at Yahoo enjoying the Northern Californian lifestyle in Silicon Valley.

“It’s important to be ok with uncertainty,” says Zhao. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be but I had a general direction, and as new opportunities appeared, I took those that felt right. Keep shaping and chasing your own direction. If you were able to succeed at KAUST, in the desert, taking hard classes, bearing the high temperatures and salinity, and being able to drink Arabic coffee, you can do anything.”    

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