Johnston, Zhang produce two of Georgia Tech’s best Ph.D. dissertations this year

Wednesday, March 20, 2019
Former Ph.D. student Eric Johnston stands on a cliff with the sea behind him. (Photo Courtesy: Eric Johnston)
Former Ph.D. student Shelly Zhang, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Photo Courtesy: Shelly Zhang/University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Sigma Xi has recognized the work of two recently graduated civil and environmental engineering doctoral students as some of the best of the year at Georgia Tech.

Eric Johnston and Shelly Zhang won the Best Ph.D. Thesis award from the science and engineering honor society. They were two of just nine students honored for their outstanding research for 2019.

“The Sigma Xi Ph.D. thesis award is quite competitive, with Ph.D. graduates from all the schools across campus. Winning this award means that my research work is recognized by the experts in various disciplines,” said Zhang, who worked with Raymond Allen Jones Chair Glaucio Paulino. “This award gives a nice closure of my Ph.D. work and provides an exciting beginning of my new career.”

Zhang joined the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in January. Johnston has joined the Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher.

“The institutional capabilities and diverse expertise at Georgia Tech truly enabled me to participate in research at the frontiers of science and engineering,” Johnston said. “Receiving this award makes me confident that my hard work contributed significantly to the subjects of soil science and environmental engineering.”

His thesis with Professor Kostas Konstantinidis focused on how soil microbes process carbon and the impact of climate change on those processes.

“Soils represent perhaps the most diverse biological communities on Earth. The microorganisms inhabiting them are involved in many important — and often overlooked — processes that are vital to humans and other organisms, such as water quality maintenance, nutrient cycling, and food and fiber production,” Johnston said.

“Understanding how soil carbon cycling processes — which are mediated by soil microorganisms — will change as temperatures continue to increase, remains one of the biggest challenges in our ability to predict future climate change.”

Zhang’s work focused on topology optimization, “a powerful technique for generating optimal shapes of structures.

“I am passionate about developing next-generation engineering structures and material systems that are resilient, sustainable and innovative,” Zhang said. “Topology optimization offers a promising avenue to achieve this goal.”

Johnston and Zhang will receive their awards with the other Sigma Xi winners in April at the Georgia Tech chapter’s spring banquet.