Inspired and Inspiring

University of Minnesota Outstanding Achievement Award recipient Zhanjiang (John) Liu is living a pay-it-forward life. 
December 10, 2021

It’s been a rewarding year for CBS alumnus Zhanjiang (John) Liu (M.S. ’85, Ph.D. ’89). Liu received the University of Minnesota’s Outstanding Achievement Award and the College of Biological Sciences Alumni Achievement Award this spring. He was recognized for numerous achievements, including pioneering work in fish genomics and exceptional accomplishments as a scholar, mentor to scores of graduate students, and top administrator at two universities. Currently interim vice chancellor and provost at Syracuse University, Liu says he learned a lot of things as a graduate student at the U in the 1980s. But perhaps the most important lesson of all was what he calls the “Minnesota Spirit”—helping others succeed.

“Minnesota had a culture of educators. Our professors were educators, not just teachers. They cared about our success. They cared deeply about our careers,” he says. “[This] made me an OK scientist, but even more made me a better person, made me a more impactful person, caring about others rather than myself.”

Liu’s exceptional career began on a farm in one of the poorest regions of China. His desire to help feed a hungry world took him first to Northwestern Agricultural University in Shaanxi Province, China, and then to the University of Minnesota. Here he earned a master’s degree in plant pathology with Professor Bill Bushnell. Then he accepted Professor Perry Hackett’s invitation to complete his Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology working on transgenic fish.

“Perry told me, ‘DNA is DNA, RNA is RNA—you can learn from these fish and apply it to your plant biology,’” he says. But he ended up staying the course.

“I started to learn in my career, you can’t really plan your life,” he says. “You can plan to stand up when you fall and be prepared to do the unprepared. You just have to ask yourself, ‘Can I do this?’”

After a postdoc in the University’s Medical School and a stint with a Twin Cities biotech startup, Liu returned to academia in 1994 as a member of the faculty of Auburn University in Alabama, where he became an international leader in fish genomics. In 2013, Liu was appointed associate provost and associate vice president for research at Auburn University, and in 2017 moved on to leadership roles at Syracuse University.

Along the way, he has mentored more than 60 graduate students—many of whom have gone on to faculty positions of their own—and racked up more than 18,000 scientific citations. In addition to his work in the United States, he has served in numerous positions in China, including affiliate professorships at five institutions and honorary dean and director positions at several others. He is a fellow of the World Aquaculture Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“My professors inspired me to feel that you can do anything you wanted to do,” Liu says. And his goal is to pass that on.

“That’s the fundamental difference I’m trying to make as a provost,” he says. “[I want my faculty members] to give confidence to every student, including first-generation students, including disadvantaged students, so they feel there’s a future for them. Our job is to inspire and empower students. Let them feel they can be anything they want to be. That’s fundamentally what Minnesota gave to me.” —Mary Hoff