Thirty-five year old Zhang Yaqin has accomplished what most people might take a lifetime to do.
At the age of 12, Zhang excelled in the national college examination and was admitted into the "Gifted Class" for teenaged prodigies at the prestigious University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in 1978.
He was then the youngest college student in China, six years younger than the average 18-year-old freshman.
At 17, Zhang obtained a Bachelor of Science from USTC, while many young people at this age are still preparing for the national college entrance examination.
At 19, he obtained a Master's degree in Science from USTC.
At 20, Zhang left China to travel around the United States.
Three years later, he obtained a PhD from George Washington University in the United States.
At 31, he became -- and still is -- the youngest fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc (IEEE), a century-old non-profit, professional technical association with more than 360,000 members from 150 countries.
Zhang has authored and co-authored over 200 papers delivered and published in leading international conferences and journals and holds 40 US patents in fields of digital video, Internet, multimedia, wireless and satellite communications.
In 1998, he was named "Research Engineer of the Year" by the New Jersey Engineering Council for his "leadership and invention in communications technology, which has enabled dramatic advances in digital video compression and manipulation for broadcast and interactive television and networking applications."
In addition, Zhang received national recognition as "The Outstanding Young Electrical Engineer of 1998," a prestigious award given annually to an electrical engineer in the United States.
Zhang, managing director of Microsoft Research Asia, is back in China after more than 10 years away from his home.
He is leading more than 120 world-class researchers who aspire to build the world's most prestigious computer research organization in the Asia-Pacific region.
"It has always been my dream to work in my homeland and contribute to the country that has nurtured me," Zhang said, ”Microsoft has helped make my dream come true. Working for Microsoft Research Asia is a win-win situation for both Microsoft and China."
In 1998, Microsoft decided to set up Microsoft Research China, a research center, in Beijing.
At the top of the agenda for Li Kaifu, the first managing director of the center was to recruit the most talented people.
Before his departure from the US to join the company's China mission, Li sent an e-mail to many of his friends and colleagues, asking them to recommend the best researchers in the fields of computers, software and multimedia.
Upon his arrival in Beijing, he checked his e-mail and found responses that repeatedly directed him to Zhang Yaqin, a world-renowned scientist of Chinese origin. Li immediately called Zhang.
At that time, Zhang was the director of the Multimedia Technology Laboratory at the Sarnoff Corporation in Princeton, New Jersey, one of the most highly-regarded research centers in the world.
Zhang expressed complete contentment with his current situation and found Li's words inspiring: "Don't you want to pioneer a new undertaking by going back to your homeland? Let's work together to create a world-class research center in China and make history."
Microsoft Research China was officially announced in November, 1998. Li was named managing director. Two months later, Zhang joined as the center’s chief scientist and deputy director.
Zhang's decision received enormous attention from his fellow Chinese researchers living and working overseas.
Many of them, influenced by Zhang, have since come back and re-established careers in their homeland.
Among them are: Zhang Hongjiang, a pioneer in the area of content-based video search technology; Shen Xiangyang, one of the best graphics and vision researchers in the world; Zhu Wenwu, a communication expert from Bell Labs; Li Shipeng, a rising star in the video compression field.
Today, about 30 percent of Zhang's researchers are Chinese who have returned from overseas.
"I feel so fortunate to work with so many brilliant scientists and researchers in video compression, internet, digital library and computer graphics and natural language technologies," Zhang said. "I am thrilled to see increasingly more overseas Chinese scholars returning to work in China."
In August 2000, Zhang became the managing director of Microsoft Research China, after Li was promoted to Microsoft vice-president and moved to Seattle.
Under Li and Zhang's leadership, the research center has grown from just a few people to more than 120 world-class scientists. Over 400 papers have been published in leading international conferences and journals. Some of its research results have set international standards, and others have been incorporated into the company's latest Windows XP and Office products.
In October 2001, Microsoft Research China was renamed to Microsoft Research Asia (MSR Asia), and became Microsoft's basic research arm in the Asia-Pacific region, which is one of three global research centers for Microsoft.
About the same time, Zhang sold his house and cars in Princeton and moved his whole family back to Beijing.
"Five or six years ago, if you quit your job and moved back to China, people would think you were making significant sacrifices," Zhang said. "But today, things have profoundly changed. China is full of opportunities and vitality."
Scholars from previous generations remember that in the 1950s, many overseas Chinese scholars sacrificed their comfortable life and returned to the new China to serve the country. The nation's young generation is doing the same today, but "We give up very little," Zhang said.
"On the contrary, we are presented with tremendous opportunities where our knowledge and experiences can be fully taken advantage of. I am very optimistic and hold great confidence in the future prospects for China."
He's also pleased that his 8-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son now speak fluent mandarin in Beijing.
"China has a great elementary educational system where my kids can learn about Chinese culture and history," Zhang said.
Three years ago when Microsoft set up its research center in Beijing, there were very few of its kind in China. Since then, research organizations have mushroomed, especially those operated by multinational and domestic companies, such as Intel China Labs, IBM Research, Legend Corporate Research & Development and Bell Labs.
"One of our missions is to promote academic exchanges among research organizations and universities," Zhang said.
Zhang and his colleagues have extensive contacts with their counterparts, and jointly host conferences, demonstrate their latest research results and analyze management strategies and the retention of talents.
(China Daily March 20, 2002)