Relationships that paved the way
Dr. Wendong Zhang (PhD ’15) received a Young Professional Achievement award from the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES). Zhang is currently an associate professor in the department of economics at Iowa State University (ISU), where he created a nationally recognized extension program that addresses a unique mix of both domestic and international issues in agriculture.
Zhang initially didn’t know where his educational path would lead him, but the relationships he created with faculty and other PhD students during his time in AEDE would pave the way for his future career as an extension economist at ISU.
Zhang was first admitted to Ohio State as part of the interdisciplinary Environmental Sciences Graduate Program (ESGP). Even though his undergraduate degree was in environmental sciences, it was in ESGP that he began to realize his passion for economics. He met numerous AEDE faculty his first year in the program, eventually taking a course with AEDE Professor Elena Irwin, who would go on to become his PhD advisor, collaborator and mentor.
“It grew into a very valuable relationship,” Zhang said.
Irwin would go on to hire Zhang as a research assistant and connect him with opportunities in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA ERS), which resulted in Zang co-authoring a book chapter on farmland valuation and co-writing his first journal article.
“It was all thanks to the connections my advisor had,” he said. “It really highlights the level of care that AEDE faculty give graduate students.”
Zhang recalled other faculty members he collaborated and published with during his tenure as a student. “I really appreciated that you not only get to work with the faculty on your dissertation committee, but the whole department works together to help you succeed as a graduate student.”
After graduating from the PhD program in 2015, Zhang saw ISU was looking for a faculty member to take over the annual ISU Land Value Survey, and he applied. Zhang credits his research experience on U.S. farmland markets with USDA ERS, and his PhD advisor (Elena Irwin), as big factors in landing the position.
During his time on the job market, he received numerous letters of support from Irwin, who also directly advocated for his candidacy to potential employers. “In hindsight, I feel really fortunate to have found such a loving and supportive mentor who really cares about the success of students,” Zhang said.
Zhang grew up in a rural area of China. He realized many of the problems at the interplay between agriculture and the environment as they relate to sustainability transcended borders. While Zhang studied the impacts of harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie with Ohio Sea Grant as a student, he found himself thinking about similar water quality issues in the Gulf of Mexico, Africa, Europe and China.
Another AEDE faculty member, Professor Brian Roe, challenged Zhang to think about how he could leverage his unique background in his new faculty position at ISU.
“Brian planted a seed and recognized my potential to carve out a unique role as an extension economist who specializes in international issues, which you don’t see in more traditional extension pipelines,” Zhang said.
Zhang took Roe’s advice and would go on to become one of the few extension economists with an international focus. Zhang’s unique skillset and experiences positioned him to become integral in the creation of the Center for China-US Agricultural Economics and Policy, just two years after being hired at ISU. The center has since won multiple awards and grants, and has become a go-to on trade, agricultural markets, policy analysis and more.
As Zhang reflected back on his time in AEDE, he listed numerous former classmates and other AEDE alumni with whom he still keeps in touch and collaborates. “There is a large network of successful alumni, especially in academia,” he said.
Last year (seven years after graduating), Zhang published a paper with three other AEDE alums all located at separate academic institutions, analyzing the impact switching from coal-powered plants to natural gas had on housing prices in Beijing, China.
Now as a faculty member himself, Zhang has several PhD students, postdocs and other students under his charge. Finding ways to support them is exciting to Zhang, but finding consistent time to meet with them can sometimes be a challenge. Luckily, he has a great example to look to for inspiration.
“When I was in grad school, no matter how busy Elena was, she always found time to meet with me on a regular basis, every week,” he said. “I can now really appreciate the commitment that took. I’m trying to live up to the standards she set,” he said.