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Graduate Student Finds Unexpected Home in Merced

November 5, 2012

Zhijiang “Justin” Ye wasn’t expecting to attend the newest campus in the UC system.

He just wanted to work with Professor Ashlie Martini.

When Ye, then a student at University of Minnesota, connected with Martini and asked to join her research group, he found out she wasn’t staying at Purdue University, where he planned to earn his doctoral degree.

“I just wanted to work with her,” Ye said. “Academically, she has a lot of connections worldwide, and is involved with prestigious organizations and publications.”

Martini, a mechanical engineering professor, works with undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, often on tribology – the study of friction. Ye is studying nanotribology – friction at very small scales.

“If we can better understand the phenomenon, we can build better machines, components and lubricants,” Ye said.

While undergraduate students can do research – and many of them at UC Merced do – most of a graduate student’s time is spent in research.

“Each grad student has his own topic to work on. It is like solving a ‘puzzle,’” he said, “and when you’ve solved it, you can graduate.”

Coming to Merced from Minneapolis was a big change, said Ye, a native of China.

“I could ski there – just open the door and there was snow everywhere, for about six months of the year,” he said. Here, he has found other ways of using what little downtime he has as a graduate student. He likes to hike, boat, fish and take photos, and said California offers plenty of opportunities for all those activities.

Although he only has one class left to take, Ye is not sure when he’ll complete his Ph.D. He wants to publish five to 10 papers while he’s here, or at least a couple in highly prestigious publications like the journals Science and Nature. So far, he published two before he came here, and said three more are coming out soon from here. 

Though he has his own projects, Ye works with the others in his group – two graduate students at Purdue, five grad students and two postdocs here – and with Martini. Together they self-evaluate their papers and decide which publications to target. He also lives off-campus with a group of fellow grad students, and said he appreciates the support of others who understand the life of a grad student.

“We help each other a lot, and the professors help us, too,” he said. One important aspect of choosing a graduate program, Ye said, is aligning yourself with a mentor with whom you are compatible, so the two of you can work well together.

“Good faculty members know how to teach and advise,” he said. “Professor Martini knows how to help and guide students.”

Ye said Martini helps him with his writing so he can improve his papers and abstracts.

“That’s not her responsibility, but she wants to help us,” he said.

When Ye finishes his degree, he’d like to teach at a research university, likely in the United States, he said. He’d also like to travel the world, but said that will have to wait until he is a professor.

“Then I might have time,” he said with a smile.

Although he wasn’t expecting UC Merced to be part of his future, Ye said he is glad to be here. “I like it here. It’s quiet and I like the views around the campus,” he said. “There’s a good atmosphere for research. This is a good place.”