Family crisis forces researcher to finish master’s project in hospital | Duke Kunshan University

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Family crisis forces researcher to finish master’s project in hospital


Songjia Zhang graduated with a master’s in environmental policy in the summer

By DKU staff

For a graduate student, few things are as stressful as completing their master’s project. Yet in late spring, with just months left before graduation, it was the least of Songjia Zhang’s problems.

Already forced into lockdown by the Covid-19 epidemic, things got worse for Zhang when her 73-year-old grandma fell seriously ill and needed emergency surgery. The environmental researcher had to finish her thesis against the clock while isolated at a hospital in Suzhou.

“It was a really hard time,” said Zhang, who despite the circumstances managed to turn in her project and graduate from Duke Kunshan this summer with a master’s degree in environmental policy. “I felt a deep sense of achievement, and I felt I was able to take charge in my family.”

Zhang’s grandma, who underwent a liver transplant 13 years ago, suddenly began to cough up blood in mid-March. Her health had been poor since 2018, and she had required hospitalization on several occasions. However, finding a hospital bed during Covid-19 was no easy task.

“It wouldn’t have been difficult to have her hospitalized and get her the surgery in normal times, but we were in the middle of an epidemic, so all the specialized hospitals lacked doctors … and they couldn’t invite experts from elsewhere,” Zhang said.

She contacted several hospitals in Jiangsu province and Shanghai, but all of them said they were unable to admit her grandma. “I was so anxious,” Zhang said. “Fortunately, my best friend had some connections with a hospital in Suzhou and eventually my grandma was hospitalized and received the surgery.”

For the next month, despite the uncertainties surrounding the spread of Covid-19, Zhang lived at the hospital to help care for her grandma. At the same time, she continued to write up her field research in Shanghai, where she used an artificial neural network and remote sensing technology with an unmanned aerial vehicle to estimate the heavy metals in soil.

Zhang’s grandmother recovers in the hospital after surgery

“My grandma is my hero, so at the beginning I just worried about finding a hospital for her and about the risks of cross infection,” Zhang said. “Later, though, the anxiety came from whether I could submit my master’s project on time.”

After discussing her situation with her advisor Patrick Ward and project instructor Coraline Goron, Zhang was able to secure an extension to complete the work.

“They both gave me a lot of help through a difficult time, warm spiritual encouragement,” she said. “Patrick was so gentle, and Coraline was so nice to organize and send me all the course material I’d missed.”

Since graduating, Zhang has been leading an environmental research project for the Jiaxing Tongji Environmental Research Institute that aims to establish an environmental big data platform for Jiaxing, a city in Zhejiang province.

The institute is part of Shanghai Tongji University, where Zhang plans to pursue a Ph.D. and advance her work using remote sensing tech to detect, predict and manage soil and underground water pollution.

Looking back on her experience in 2020, Zhang said that she ultimately feels lucky.

“I can guess that during the epidemic period, because of a lack of doctors and beds, many people with underlying diseases that were not infected with Covid-19 were also facing a high possibility of death,” she added. “It was a really hard time. I think we were lucky.”

Zhang (center) conducts fieldwork research with fellow students