College of Science

Su takes his leadership role to new level as math chairman

The Department of Mathematics recently underwent a change in leadership, but the new person in charge has already been serving the department in numerous important roles for years.

Jianzhong Su, professor of math and new department chair, has long been a major part of the department's push for improvement in all areas, particularly in boosting its graduate program, in student retention and in recruiting a large and diverse group of students and helping ensure they succeed once in the program. Su took over the chair position on January 1 from Jianping Zhu, who left to become dean of Graduate Studies at Cleveland State University.

"The mathematics department has a very strong research faculty and has also developed at a record-breaking pace during the last five to six years, especially in the graduate program," Su said. "We have attracted a large number of U.S. nationals, underrepresented minorities, and women students to the department. This success is due to the great efforts of our dedicated faculty, whom I am privileged to work with."

Su said he is confident the department will be able to continue to build on its recent successes, which include a large rise in graduate student enrollment and in doctoral degrees awarded, as well as significant improvements in retention and graduation rates.

"I thank Dr. Zhu, who did an excellent job as math department chairman during the last six and a half years," Su said. "The department has grown tremendously in all areas. Especially, the math graduate program has doubled its size, and the number of female and minority students has quadrupled. The mathematics department is well positioned in UTA's thrust for reaching Tier One research university status.

"Math faculty members have a strong research program in all major areas of mathematics. We attract a large number of students to our math graduate and undergraduate degree programs, teacher programs, summer REUs, and many outreach activities. Many math faculty members also play significant roles in ongoing interdisciplinary research projects throughout the university where mathematics serves as the crucial link connecting many areas of engineering, science, education, nursing and others."

Su's colleagues say he's a perfect fit to lead the department.

"Dr. Su is an outstanding scholar who has served the department, college and University in various capacities for years," College of Science Dean Pamela Jansma said. "He will do an excellent job. The department is on firm ground and we are confident that it will continue to thrive in the years to come under Dr. Su's guidance."

Su, who came to UT Arlington in 1990, has a lengthy record of award-winning research and teaching excellence and has also contributed countless hours in volunteer service. His research interests are in computational neuroscience, partial differential equations and nonlinear dynamical systems. He received the College of Science Research Excellence Award in April 2011.

"I have a keen interest in the mathematical models that are used to understand natural phenomena in the brain, which is called computational neuroscience," he said. "Research in health and medicine is critical for a better future, and mathematics is a very important tool in this area. These complicated systems, especially the brain and the neuronal system, require very sophisticated mathematical tools to explore. These are the new frontier for science and mathematics as well."

Su has earned praise for his collaborative approach to research.

"Dr. Su is a very supportive, collaborative, and pleasant-to-work-with individual, and yet very knowledgeable and professional in his mathematical advances," said Hanli Liu, a professor of bioengineering who has collaborated extensively with Su. "Dr. Su and I have actively and positively collaborated in biomedical imaging research for more than six years. He took an initiative in contacting me and wished to explore the possibility of applying very rigorous mathematics for real-world problems in biomedical research. I am glad that we have formed such a wonderful research team and moved forward in our research development."

Added associate professor of math Hristo Kojouharov, "It has been a pleasure to work with Jianzhong. Several years ago, I got involved in some of the very interesting interdisciplinary projects that Jianzhong is working on in collaboration with bioengineers here at UT Arlington. Those are projects with challenging mathematics and research results that could have potential benefits for human welfare."

In 2010, Su and Liu received a $958,666, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health for their project, ''Transrectal Imaging of Prostate Cancer Using a Globally Convergent Method." The project involves an innovative mathematical method which can be used for near-infrared (NIR) optical imaging. Michael Klibanov of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Hua Shan, formally of UTA and now with a Navy research lab, are working with Su and Liu on the research, which they started in 2004.

"NIR imaging is related to a mathematical problem in differential equations, known as the Coefficient Inverse Problem," Su said. "It is very challenging mathematically. However, if we can solve it, instruments and software developed based on this theory can directly benefit patients. Along with graduate students and post-docs, we have worked together for 3-4 years, and found a way - the Globally Convergent method - to solve the problems.

"Now, we are at a stage where we can use the method to solve many imaging problems. Our first target was stroke, where our method was used to detect strokes in rat brains during animal experiments, and the method is highly successful. The imaging of prostate cancer was our second target. Of course, cancer is more difficult to detect in general."

Working collaboratively, Su and Liping Tang, professor of bioengineering, received a $1,327,680, five-year grant from NIH in 2008 for the project, "Biomaterial-mediated fibrotic responses," which involves modeling of immune responses.

"My other computational neuroscience related research is more at a neuronal level, modeling neuron electrical and chemical activities," Su said. "An ongoing effort is to understand the neuron activity pattern called 'bursting' as they appear, both from modeling and mathematical theory in nonlinear dynamics. Another area is modeling of synapses, where we used a partial differential equation to understand the spatial structure of synapses and neurotransmitter dynamics.

"Synapses are too small - a few hundred nanometers - to measure directly by electrodes, but our mathematical model can correctly predict that the

Jianzhong Su has been a UT Arlington faculty member since 1990.

spatial locations of transmitter release and shapes synaptic gap (called cleft) in such a small size make a lot of difference as shown in the different behavior of spontaneous as well as evoked synaptic currents."

Su has also worked and published papers with math faculty members Hristo Kojouharov, Guojun Liao and Chaoqun Liu. He has worked periodically with Jonathan Rubin of the University of Pittsburgh on neuron bursting, and more recently with Ege Kavalali of UT Southwestern on synapse modeling.

In addition to his research and teaching duties, Su has served as Director of Graduate Studies for the math department since 2004. On May 2, 2011, Su received the Outstanding Academic Advisor Award, Graduate level, for his work in guiding graduate students and making sure they are on the right track in their degree plans.

"As a research university, the graduate program is a key component for UTA to reach research Tier I University status," he said. "I am very fortunate to work with a group of talented mathematics graduate students, help them grow in the program and share the joy of their progress. I believe that their successes in their graduate studies and in their future professional careers are at the center of our goals for our mathematical program."

For the past 13 years, Su has served as a volunteer for the Fort Worth Regional Science Fair, including as a member of the board the past 10 years. The fair is an effective recruiting tool and stresses the importance of science, technology, engineering and math to hundreds of school-age kids in North Texas each year. Students present their research projects and compete for prizes, and they get to be around others who think science, math and engineering are "cool."

"Since Tarrant County is where the largest group of our undergraduate students comes from, the fair is an excellent platform for projecting UTA's image to our prospective students," Su said. "So this is an important event for us to participate in and play important roles in."

Su was born and raised in Shanghai, China. He took an early interest in math, but China's Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 when he was a child, caused tremendous upheaval in virtually every aspect of society. The education system ground to a virtual halt. When the revolution ended with Communist Party leader Mao Zedong's death in 1976, a push toward modernization ensued, and education's importance was re-established.

"Science and mathematics regained the respect of the society in China," Su said. "I became more interested in mathematics after winning a few prizes in the Math Olympia in Shanghai, and then joined the team in training for the international Math Olympia for high school students."

While he excelled in math, when Su applied for college in 1980 he was thinking of becoming a physicist, as physics, especially high energy physics, was big in China by that time. He took the college admission exam and got one of the top 10 scores among a quarter-million students.

"I was sure that I would be admitted to any program I applied for," he said. "When I was admitted as a mathematics major instead of physics, I was surprised. Nevertheless, I moved on to join the mathematics program at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), one of the best engineering schools in China. There, my interest to mathematics flourished."

Su earned a B.S. in Applied Mathematics from SJTU in 1984. At that time, many U.S. universities were starting to recruit students from mainland China. The University of Minnesota's school of mathematics sent an invitation, and asked SJTU to suggest a student. Su, as SJTU's top undergraduate, was recommended.

"The only issue was that I had only two years of English as a foreign language by then, after studying Russian for many years," Su said. "So I spent six months studying English on my own, and passed the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) test. Now I have forgotten almost all the Russian I had learned."

The University of Minnesota has a well-respected program in applied mathematics, particularly in partial differential equations. Su worked under the guidance of professor Hans Weinberger on a differential equation model related to neurons, a mathematical problem in mathematical neuroscience. He got his Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1990.

Su had several interviews and job offers after receiving his Ph.D., but selected UT Arlington "because the math department provided the best scientific environment for my area," he said. "Almost half of the faculty then was in my applied math area, so that was very attractive to me."

He has seen the department make tremendous strides and wants to continue that upward path as chair.

"During my 21 years teaching at UTA, I have witnessed the tremendous growth of the University, and it is a great place to teach and do research," he said. "I hope to be able to help the mathematics department continue to improve and be a great asset to the University."

Su and his wife, Betty, live in Grapevine. They have one son, Roger, and one daughter, Lisa.

Posted April 10, 2012