Wei Zhao’s story could also be that of modern-day China. In addition to enduring the hardships of the Cultural Revolution, Zhao lost six critical years of schooling and yet persevered to become the Rector of the University of Macau, one of Greater China’s up-and-coming universities. He speaks fluent Mandarin and English and is learning Cantonese and Portuguese.
Born in Xi’an in 1953, Zhao’s ancestral home is Suzhou, Jiangsu province, in eastern China. Amidst the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, he successfully matriculated to Shaanxi Normal University, graduating with a degree in physics in 1977. He later made the unimaginable leap of attending graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the United States, receiving his Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Computer and Information Sciences in 1983 and 1986, respectively.
Zhao’s career has, in many ways, followed a traditional trajectory of research scientist and academic. Over a period of 30 years, he has made his mark in the fields of distributed computing, real-time systems, computer networks, information security as well as cyber-physical systems—fields far removed from the farming fields of the Cultural Revolution.
Zhao has also ventured beyond the confines of academia to partner with applied technology, thereby integrating with the world at large. His group has been the recipient of numerous international awards plus a DARPA technology award (DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is part of the U.S. Department of Defense and responsible for developing emerging military technologies.) His research on fiber-optic communication has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Defense’s SAFENET standards and utilised in mission-critical systems.
It comes as no surprise, then, that he was recruited by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) as Division Director. During his tenure there, he led his division to initiate a new research direction for engineering systems—one that integrates computational and physical components—which led to the establishment of a research program called Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS). Soon after its initiation, CPS was given top priority as a research area by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). CPS has since become a fully-fledged research field, jointly supported by multiple government agencies with thousands of researchers and developers actively engaged in the emerging field.
Zhao went on to face the challenges and rewards of academic leadership, quickly moving up the ranks. As head of Texas A&M University’s Computer Science department, he quadrupled their external research funding. Later, as Dean of Science and Senior Associate Vice President for Research at Texas A&M, he created the Office of Technology Transfer. He also established the Center of Information Security and Assurance which was recognised as a Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education by the U.S. National Security Agency.
Professor Zhao has also partnered with the NSF in managing the Division of Computer and Network Systems with an annual working budget of US$180 million. He has proven his leadership not only in financial but also operational effectiveness, reducing proposal processing time by 30%.
Professor Zhao’s crowning achievement, his current position as Rector/President of the University of Macau, is probably his most enduring. Since 2008, with Zhao at the helm, the university has undergone a remarkable transformation, both physically and intellectually. He oversaw the complete transformation of a new campus with over 60 buildings being built from scratch. Costing over US$2 billion, the project was yet executed on time and within budget.
In 2005, Zhao was awarded the Lifelong Achievement Award by the Chinese Association of Science and Technology. Two years later, he received the Overseas Achievement Award from the Chinese Computer Federation. Honorary doctorates have been conferred on him by no fewer than 12 universities from all corners of the globe. To top it all off, in 2012, he was ushered into the China Science Center of International Eurasian Academy of Sciences.