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Lixia Zhang, PhD ’89

Researcher played key role in developing Internet architecture
October 20, 2009

As a teenager in northern China during the Cultural Revolution, Lixia Zhang worked full time on a farm, since high schools and colleges were closed. “Luckily, my elders privately encouraged me to study and told me science moves humanity forward,” says Zhang, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and cochair of the Internet Research Task Force’s Routing Research Group.

She took the advice, learning English and calculus on her own. When China’s educational institutions reopened in 1978, Zhang lost no time. She passed the nationwide graduate-school entrance exam with top scores and was chosen to study in the United States, where she earned a master’s in electrical engineering at California State University at Los Angeles in 1981. After her PhD studies at MIT, Zhang joined the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and then moved to UCLA in 1996.

Today Zhang’s work is widely hailed in Internet circles for improving protocol designs and security. She was honored with the 2009 Internet Award at the 17th IEEE International Conference on Network Protocols for her contributions toward developing the Internet’s architecture. She is an IEEE Fellow, and her work was among the 10 landmark articles printed in the 50th-anniversary issue of IEEE Communications Magazine.

Zhang sees security as a top challenge for the Internet today. “It can be daunting, thinking about defending the global infrastructure on which so much depends,” she says. “But the Internet’s sheer size and its dense connectivity bring advantages. While there are vulnerabilities, there are also redundancies and many people monitoring the infrastructure 24/7.”

During her first years in the United States, Zhang struggled with English and with gaps in her earlier education. “Luckily, the student center at MIT was open 24 hours and served coffee,” she says. “I spent many overnights there catching up on course work.” And her MIT advisor, senior research scientist David Clark, SM ‘68, EE ‘68, PhD ‘73, was “a magical teacher who guided and supported me for eight years,” she says. “Dave taught me what the Internet is.”

Zhang lives with her husband, Jim Ma, and their 16-year-old son, Shawn, in Sherman Oaks, CA. The couple’s elder son, Zane, is a sophomore at Princeton University. Whenever she has time–which she admits is not often–Zhang loves to read. She especially enjoys the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics series, which she says “teach me not only physics, but how to look at problems and conduct research.”

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