Alumnus Hao Zhang has endowed a fund to help the Division of Engineering and Applied Science recruit and support the most promising and in-demand faculty. He has also established scholarships for international students, ensuring that Caltech can continue to enroll the most talented students from around the world.
When Hao Zhang (BS '00) first arrived at Caltech, he was a transfer student from China eager to delve further into applied math and enjoy the famed California sunshine. Now, at a very different point in his life, he returns to campus with just as much curiosity and enthusiasm, but a different set of motivations.
"I'm at a place in my career where I can think about where my successes come from and try to give back," Zhang says over a Brain Freeze—a favorite drink from his undergraduate days—at the Red Door Café. "I don't want to wait until it's too late."
After graduating from Caltech with a bachelor's degree in engineering and applied science, Zhang earned an MS in statistics and a PhD in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is now a managing director at Two Sigma, a quantitative trading firm based in New York City. He says his time at Caltech—including his involvement in research as an undergraduate and the lessons he learned in an economics course on decision theory—prepared him for success in both graduate school and industry.
Over the past year and a half, Zhang has become increasingly engaged with Caltech. He has met with faculty, toured labs on campus and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and joined the Chair's Advisory Council of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS), among other highlights. He says these activities have given him insights about the Institute's priorities and needs, provided a broader perspective on fields such as artificial intelligence, and prompted him to reconnect with other alumni at his company. The experiences also inspired him to make two significant gifts.
Venture Capital Meets Human Capital
Through his involvement with the Chair's Advisory Council, Zhang learned that one of EAS's highest priorities is to enhance start-up packages for prospective faculty. Start-up funds allow new faculty members to hire postdoctoral scholars and technical staff; support graduate students; attend conferences; and purchase equipment, lab supplies, and high-performance computer time. These essential funds also give newly hired faculty freedom to develop their academic vision.
The division hopes to bolster its ability to attract the most highly sought after scholars by partnering with alumni and other friends to establish "Series EAS" funds. (The name is a play on venture capital terminology related to rounds of initial start-up investments.) Zhang stepped forward to become the division's first partner in this effort, giving $1 million to endow the Zhang Family Series EAS Fund.
"Having been a PhD student, I'm aware of the challenges a young faculty member might face—and it makes sense that Caltech would want to think more proactively as to how it can provide additional incentives in recruiting the best and the brightest," Zhang says. "So, I'm very happy to help EAS give young faculty the support they need to launch successful careers."
"We live in an era of extreme competition for talent, and rising computational costs have made it almost as expensive to develop theories and models as it is to conduct experiments," says Harry Atwater, the Otis Booth Leadership Chair of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science, and director of the Liquid Sunlight Alliance. "I am deeply grateful for Hao's gift, which has strengthened our ability to recruit and retain outstanding faculty."
Supporting Talented Students from around the World
Zhang was only able to attend Caltech, he says, because of financial aid. As an undergraduate, he was involved not only in research, but also in teaching: He was a teaching assistant (TA) during his junior year and head TA during his senior year, tasked with tutoring and looking after the well-being of his peers. Throughout, Zhang was struck by the feeling that Caltech believed in him—a feeling that persists.
"My time at Caltech provided me with the serenity, if you will, to be able to take on challenges later," Zhang says, "to say, ‘Hey, there's always this place that valued me and thought I could make a difference in the lives of many people.'"
Zhang also cherished the opportunity he had to interact with students from around the world, which he says added to the richness of his undergraduate experience. Hoping to pave the way for what he calls "younger versions of himself," he made a gift of $150,000 to support scholarships for international undergraduates, with a preference for students from China. The endowed Hao Zhang Scholarships will benefit Caltech students in perpetuity. Moreover, his gift contributes to the success of the Initiative for Caltech Students, a fundraising campaign focused on improving every aspect of the student experience.
Philanthropy as a Call to Action
Zhang describes Caltech's academic environment as intimate, "quite precious," and worthy of support—and he hopes his gifts will inspire others to give. He is thinking mainly of his fellow alumni, including the future graduates who will have received his scholarship and may find themselves looking back with a level of gratitude that matches his.
"Folks who have gone through Caltech, like me, have valued and derived value out of it," he says. "It's great to be able to pass that torch on to continue the great tradition of this institution."