Student Yunfei Zhao thought geosynthetics were just a load of “plastic stuff”. Now with a PhD and lecturing to undergraduates, he says educating them about the potential and possibilities of geosynthetics is a career highlight. Here, he shares his learning journey.
Please tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Yunfei Zhao, I’m 32 and live in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei province, China. I achieved my PhD degree in 2021 from Shijiazhuang Tiedao University, where I majored in transportation engineering. I currently work as a lecturer at Hebei GEO University in China.
Tell us a bit about your career journey.
I spent most of my college time in Shijiazhuang Tiedao University, where I got my Masters degree and PhD, under the supervision of Professor Guangqing Yang, who is a professor there and Secretary General of China Technical Association on Geosynthetics.
I first came across geosynthetics on my ‘Materials in Civil Engineering’ class, during my third year as an undergraduate. I wasn’t attracted to them back then, because I thought those kinds of materials were ‘just plastic stuff’. But two years later, on my first year as a postgraduate, the geosynthetics class was a surprise to me. The class showed me that there was a beautiful world in this ‘plastic stuff’ because of its variety and worldwide applications. So I decided to use my learning time to find out more about it as a doctoral student.
Tell us a bit about your PhD – what were the challenges and highlights?
I became a doctoral student in 2016. I think the biggest challenge as a PhD student was to learn how to complete research tasks independently. The cutting edge of the field should be read and understood and the aim of research and the feasibility of the laboratory or field test should be fully discussed. My greatest enjoyment was when my papers were published, or when a series of tests that lasted for months were done. The biggest highlight for me was the moment that my oral defense (viva voce) finished; when everybody came up to congratulate me for the pass, it felt like dream to me.
Tell us about your interest in geosynthetics and your chosen focus.
My interest in geosynthetics is in geosynthetic-reinforced soil (GRS) structures, and my chosen focus is the stability and long-term performance of GRS structures in engineering. I think it is important to understand the working performance of GRS structures, as they have been widely used in railway, highway and airport engineering. The stability of it is the key factor in the safety of people’s daily lives now.
You have started a role as a lecturer. How is it going?
Yes! I am working as a lecturer! I teach road design and English in civil engineering to undergraduates. They have the same awareness about geosynthetics as I had at their age: geosynthetics is ‘plastic stuff’ used in engineering.
I chose this job because I really love to share the knowledge with my students, it feels perfect. I was nervous in the first month, because I wasn’t sure the students liked what I taught or not, but the feedback from my class has given me confidence. Now I find that teaching is not only about sharing the knowledge with students, but also learning how to share that knowledge with them.
What are you looking forward to most in your career?
To educate more students about the world of geosynthetics, like my supervisor Prof. Yang.
Do you have any advice or top tips for anyone considering becoming an engineer or applying for their first job?
I think it’s important to find out the work you like to do, and do not hesitate to ask other seniors like graduates from school or engineers on the job when you have any questions.
What is your advice for anyone wanting to pursue a career as an academic/lecturer?
I think it’s important to keep up-to-speed with world developments in your field when working as a lecturer; teaching is not only about letting your students learn from books, but also to show them the development of the research field and the possibilities in the future.
Did you do work experience or an internship, and would you recommend this?
I did internships for my bachelor’s degree with a real estate company. I do recommend internships as I believe it could provide the opportunity to find the right direction, such as design or fieldwork on site.
Are you a member of the IGS Young Members Committee?
I am not a member of the IGS Young Members Committee yet, but I am looking forward to being one. However, I became a regular member of the IGS earlier this year, having been a student member since 2019.
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