Earning a Ph.D. is likely one of the biggest accomplishments a person will achieve in their lifetime. According to a report by U.S. News and World Report, it takes nearly six years for doctorate recipients to complete their degrees from a U.S. graduate school. 

For Junbo Zhao, Virginia Tech alumnus and assistant professor at University of Connecticut (UConn), earning his Ph.D. from the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering was just the tip of the academic success iceberg.  

His most recent success—being named the Power and Energy Society (PES) Outstanding Young Engineer by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).  

From a young age, Zhao knew that he loved building, tinkering, and learning how things worked. “As I got older and was learning more in school, I always wondered, ‘how could I build this myself to make it better?’ I wanted to know the physics behind it all,” he said. 

His curiosities led him to study electrical engineering in China at Southwest Jiaotong University. Zhao earned his bachelor’s degree in 2012; however, during his time as an undergraduate student he found a new passion—power and energy systems.  

“I knew that power and energy was important for the future,” said Zhao. “It was the smart grid concepts I was learning during my undergraduate education that motivated me to continue my education.”  

Zhao learned the basics of power and energy while earning his bachelor’s, but at that time, the smart grid was still a very novel concept. He knew that to dive deep into the topic that really interested him, he needed to get his Ph.D. 

“There is no doubt that Virginia Tech has one of the best engineering schools,” said Zhao. “And in the power and energy field, I think it is one of the best in the world.” 

Zhao was excited to have the opportunity to learn from some very distinguished professors in the field including his mentor and advisor, professor Lamine Mili, an IEEE Life Fellow. The ECE professor, whose research specializes in robust estimation, power system modeling, dynamics and stability, was quick to mention Zhao’s drive and dedication during his time at Virginia Tech. 

“Dr. Zhao remains one of the best Ph.D. students I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” said Mili. “He always worked hard and delivered outcomes beyond my expectation.” I am very glad that IEEE PES recognizes his excellent contributions to the field.” 

The IEEE PES Outstanding Young Engineer Award is presented annually to one engineer 35 years of age or under “for outstanding contributions in the leadership of technical society activities including local and/or transnational PES and other technical societies, leadership in community and humanitarian activities, and evidence of technical competence through significant engineering achievements.” 

Zhao graduated from Virginia Tech with his Ph.D. in 2018 and his desire to grow as a professional only grew from there. He spent his first year post-graduation at Virginia Tech as a research assistant professor and continued to work with Dr. Mili. Since then, Zhao also spent time working as an assistant professor at Mississippi State University until he landed his current position with UConn. 

“It was exciting to land the assistant professor position at UConn. It’s a great opportunity to grow my career and they have offered me a lot of resources to continue the path to success,” said Zhao. “They even promoted me to Associate Director for the Eversource Energy Center which allows me to carry out more research, work with industry partners, and mentor students in the same way I was mentored.” 

Zhao is excited about the future and the hopes he has for his research over the next five to ten years. His main focus is the grid modernization to ensure the reliability and resiliency of our electric grid here in the United States.

“Climate change and extreme weather events are causing a lot of damage to our energy infrastructure. My goal is to develop some useful tools along with industry partners and funding agencies to come up with useful solutions to address this problem,” said the Virginia Tech alum. 

The assistant professor also mentioned the topic of energy equity. He hopes to help contribute to communities that have historically not had access to clean energy solutions or have a lack of access to energy-efficient housing and transportation. 

Luke Lester, department head of the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering was thrilled to hear of Zhao’s award.  

“Alumni like Dr. Zhao are the reason so many of us find passion in teaching and mentoring,” said Lester. Not only is the work he is doing contributing to the field, but it has the potential to improve lives. His honor from IEEE is well-deserved.” 

Zhao’s advice for students interested in pursuing their Ph.D. or any advanced degree is to be curious.  

“The first thing you need to do is choose the topic that really interests you,” he said. “When you find a topic that you really want to learn more about it is easy to become self-motivated.”