UI welcomes displaced professor

URBANA – When physics Professor Zhiqiang Mao left his home in Metairie, La., and his lab at Tulane University the day before Hurricane Katrina hit, he faced losing valuable research time.

Now he's at the University of Illinois and ready to start work again.

"This is the ideal place for me," Mao said. "If I couldn't stay here to continue my work, it would have a huge impact on my research."

Mao is on campus at the invitation of Myron Salamon, a UI physics professor, associate dean in the College of Engineering and director of the Engineering Experiment Station. Salamon and Mao are part of a small group of scientists worldwide who work with a family of materials based on three elements and study their fundamental physical properties.

Mao is an expert in growing the materials in an optical floating zone furnace – a furnace that focuses a beam of light on material to melt it and form a crystal. The furnace provides the necessary superclean environment for growing the compounds, which are sensitive to impurities. And the UI is one of a half-dozen places in the country with such a furnace.

Salamon had never met Mao before he arrived in Champaign-Urbana, but Salamon knew Mao's work and is one of several UI researchers who have used samples grown by Mao. When the hurricane hit New Orleans, Salamon thought of Mao and tried to e-mail him to offer him a place to work. He couldn't reach Mao by e-mail but tracked him down through his former adviser at Penn State.

"My first thought was to send a check to the Red Cross, and I did that," Salamon said of his reaction to news of Hurricane Katrina. "But I thought, is there anything I can do as a colleague to help the people we know? We know what Dr. Mao does. We read his papers. We compete with him. If we can't beat him, we'll bring him up here. It seemed natural, if he came here and we had a furnace, we'd all benefit from it."

"My concern is we have young scholars early in their careers, and this is a big disruption" for them, he added.

When Mao left New Orleans with his wife, Yu Wang, and their 10-year-old daughter Alice, they drove to Houston – and what is usually a five-hour trip took 15 hours because of heavy traffic flowing out of New Orleans. They stayed with a friend, who also took in one of Mao's graduate students and his family, and another friend and his family. Mao said 11 people stayed in the one-bedroom apartment for a week.

Then Mao and his family flew to North Carolina to stay with relatives and decide where he would go from there. He had offers to work at universities in Japan, the United Kingdom and at Florida State University. But he wanted to stay in the U.S. and Florida State couldn't accommodate his graduate students.

So he arrived at the UI a little over a week ago. The UI is providing free housing to Mao and his two graduate students at its Orchard Downs complex, an office and a modest amount of supplies for Mao, use of the furnace, and the privileges of UI faculty, such as being able to use the bus system for free. Tulane is still paying his salary.

When he arrived, the local chapter of the American Red Cross helped Mao and his wife get prescription refills and it provided hepatitis shots, vouchers for clothing, a voucher for a night in a hotel and some supplies. It also helped them with enrolling their daughter in school.

"We didn't expect we'd receive so many helps," Mao said.

Alice is attending King Elementary School in Urbana, which has a Chinese language program, much to Mao's delight. The family speaks Chinese at home, but Alice will be able to work on her reading and writing skills at King, he said.

Mao has received some good news from home, as well. A friend checked his house in Metairie and found minor water damage from a leak, but it was not flooded and a tree that fell in the back yard missed the house.

"My lab is probably OK," he added. "The damage may be very minimal. My lab is on the fifth floor, so it shouldn't be flooded."

He'll have no access to his samples or data there for some time, but "I can reproduce the samples very quickly," he said. "We've ordered the chemicals. I think we can start our work right away when we receive those chemicals.

"The research atmosphere is wonderful, just wonderful," Mao said of his impression of the UI. "I feel I'm so lucky. My house is undamaged. I got so many helps from the University of Illinois and Professor Salamon. I really appreciate all these helps."

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