Fan Zhang in a white shirt an dpink blazer with black trim, outdoors in front of green shrubs.

Faculty Spotlight: Fan Zhang

Getting to know one of NRE's newest professors

July 22, 2021

Assistant Professor Fan Zhang joined the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering on July 1 as a member of our nuclear and radiological engineering program. Find out more about her career path, how she got into her research field, who has had an influence on her, and more in this Q&A. 

Where are you from and how did you end up at Georgia Tech?

Right before I came to Georgia Tech, I worked as a Research Assistant Professor in the Nuclear Engineering department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), where I got my Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering and a concurrent M.S. degree in Statistics. I joined Georgia Tech as a faculty member because I wanted to stay in academia and contribute to science and technology, and because Georgia Tech has one of the best NRE programs and a fantastic and inclusive campus. The interdisciplinary environment at Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering provides me with opportunities to collaborate with colleagues and students in different research areas.

Why did you choose a career in academia?

I have always believed that technology has a profound impact on society, and since nuclear energy is both safe and economical, I wanted to work in nuclear to make a better, more sustainable future. I enjoy exploring new technologies and making them applicable to real life. I also love the university environment because a) I like working with students and passing on my knowledge to the next generation; b) there is lots of passionate talent to inspire and collaborate with; and c) universities strive to be the most diverse and inclusive environment for everyone to learn and make progress, and I love being a part of that.

Who has influenced your career?

I am lucky to have had a couple of great mentors in universities and national labs that have influenced my career, and they have all been extremely supportive of me both professionally and personally. My Ph.D. advisor Dr. Jamie Coble and my mentor Dr. Wes Hines have both given me tremendous support and influenced me the most in my efforts. Of course, besides them I’ve also been heavily influenced and inspired by all the other wonderful professionals I’ve met throughout my personal career.

What class or classes are you teaching this semester?

I will teach NRE 2120. Elements of Nuclear and Radiological Engineering in Fall 2021. I am preparing the class so that it gives a good introduction of nuclear and radiological engineering, and really shows the students what’s possible with nuclear. I plan to invite one or two guest speakers to give students some real-life perspectives as well, to take the lessons learned beyond the classroom.

What is your research area?

My research focuses on instrumentation and control (I&C), which includes online-monitoring, diagnostics, prognostics, cybersecurity, autonomous control, and advanced sensing technology. I am designing and building two test beds in my lab, one is an experimental flow loop with industrial network architecture and the other is a hardware-in-the-loop advanced full scope simulation test bed. 

How did you get interested in that field?

I have always believed that nuclear energy is a clean and sustainable resource which provides a ready solution to the world’s increasing energy demands. I&C research plays a significant role in ensuring the safe, economic, and flexible operation of current and future facilities, and has enormous opportunities to make an impact on real-world problems; that is why I chose to work in I&C when I applied for my PhD program. The past five years’ experience, including my involvement with the international community through International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have only made me love the field even more. 

What research projects are you going to be working on?

I am currently working on two ongoing projects: one is a DOE NEUP project “A Cyber-Attack Detection Platform for Cyber Security of Digital Instrumentation and Control Systems,” in collaboration with Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and Southern Nuclear Company (SNC), the other is cybersecurity of advanced reactors. I am also designing two test beds for autonomous control and fault detection research. 

How many students do you plan to have working in your lab?

I will have two students to start with in the first year. Then I plan to have three to five students to work on different projects.

What is the biggest challenge of being a new professor on campus?

Balancing different responsibilities and tasks is the biggest challenge, including preparing for courses, building a lab and a research team, and looking for more funding. Luckily, the faculty and staff in the school are all super helpful, which eases the stress a bit. Otherwise, learning my way around Georgia Tech has been a really fun challenge for me; there’s so much to explore!