University of Texas at Austin


Bringing it all Together - Profile Jonathan Zhang

By Aira Balasubramanian

Published Feb. 21, 2024

Jonathan Zhang

It's a Friday afternoon and the sixth floor seminar room is teeming with students. What's the draw? “It’s a time to relax and talk in a no-pressure environment - just come in, and show us something you’ve done or are passionate about,” said Jonathan Zhang, who co-hosts the CSEM Student Form at the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences. For Zhang, facilitating conversation and collaboration have formed the cornerstone of his Oden Institute expereince.

A third-year graduate student in the Computational Sciences, Engineering and Mathematics (CSEM) program, Zhang has become a compelling co-organizer of the CSEM Student Forum. It’s not just the free pizza that’s bringing students - from 1-2pm on Fridays, Zhang works to blend his fellow students’ cutting edge ideas in computational science with a supportive, uplifting environment. 

As an undergraduate at UT Austin, Zhang was guided into the field of computational research by Greg Rodin, now Professor Emeritus at the Oden Institute. After spending time as a Moncrief Summer Intern working to build simulations that model and predict experimental approaches in Rodin’s project, he developed a sustained passion for the field, and was encouraged to apply to graduate programs by his mentors. 

After the rush of graduate school applications and graduation, Zhang found himself with six months of precious free time before his educational journey resumed. He spent that time working at the Sandia National Laboratories, collaborating with other engineers to run simulations, make predictions, and compare their results with experimentalists in order to achieve engineering goals.

Following four years of college textbook problem sets, tackling real-world problems with direct applications was an exciting prospect for Zhang. “At Sandia, I got a fantastic preview of how computational science is used outside of the academic environment,” he said. “You learn that things don't always go the way you planned. Stuff breaks sometimes, and you have to make decisions to the best of your ability using your education and experience to move forward.”

Stuff breaks sometimes, and you have to make decisions to the best of your ability using your education and experience to move forward.

— Jonathan Zhang

Now, as a graduate student at the Center for Electromagnetics and Acoustics, Zhang works with Leszek Demkowicz, professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the Oden Institute, on solving nonlinear elasticity problems with the DPG method, studying different variational formulations to see how they compare within the context of solid mechanics.

Blending tangible applications of engineering with mathematically focused research inspires Zhang, and drives his passion for the work. “Not only are we working together to solve practical problems, we are interested in proving results about how well our methods work,” said Zhang. “I’d personally always taken that for granted - it’s incredibly interesting to study the mathematics behind engineering problems.” 


Oden Institute Student Forum Series

Zhang credits his experience at the Oden Institute to the culture of collaboration that he now contributes to building. “Student life has finally returned to how things were before COVID interrupted everything,” he shared. “Folks are back in the office, coming in daily. Now, we’re all talking with each other, bouncing ideas off each other, and helping each other out.”

Zhang and his co-organizer, Shoshi Reich, aimed to emulate that comfortable environment within their student forums. Ameliorating the anxiety and vulnerability of presenting, forums don’t have strict guidelines or expectations. Instead, they’re a space to build friendships across years, and strengthen community, providing a foundation for students to thrive .

Outside of his work, Zhang is passionate about running, and just finished his first Austin Marathon. “It was undoubtedly the hardest thing I have ever done in my life,” he shared. “I started running because it was one of the only things I could do during COVID - now it's one of my favorite activities.” Following this accomplishment, Zhang is looking forward to the warmer months, continuing his research, pursuing a summer internship, and finishing his next race - the Longhorn Run. 

The CSEM Student Forum is a seminar series given by current CSEM graduate students to their peers. The aim of the forum is to expose students to each other's research, encourage collaboration, and provide opportunities to practice presentation skills. Follow this link to view upcoming forums.