Mentor and Protégé
When talking about Jun Ni, one man must be mentioned – the late Prof. Shien-Ming (Sam) Wu, Jun Ni’s mentor, an internationally recognized leader and expert in the advanced manufacturing field.
Prof. Wu was a member of Academia Sinica and served as a guest professor and honorary professor in many famous universities. During his nearly 30-year professional career, he mentored 124 Ph.D. students, which might be a world record. Many of his students are now professors at famous universities, such as the University of California, Berkeley, Purdue University, the University of Michigan, Georgia Institute of Technology, Cornell University, and the University of Wisconsin, some of whom have been elected to membership in the U.S. and Chinese National Academy of Engineering.
In the field of manufacturing in China, Prof. Wu was well known. Students or visiting scholars who once worked under his leadership are now in famous universities. For instance, Shiqin Yang (formal President of the Harbin Institute of Technology) and Shuzi Yang (formal President of Huazhong University of Science and Technology) had been visiting scholars to Wu’s laboratory.
Prof. Wu was not only a “swift horse” but also a “talent scout”. He cared for his students like a father and could bring out everyone’s strengths. He was also a strict teacher, treating his students harshly. Someone once hated him but was filled with gratitude after graduation.
In early 1989, Jun Ni was ready to return from abroad after completing two years of post-doctoral program. At this juncture, the formal SJTU Council Chairman Xuchu Deng visited the UM. As Chairman Deng and Prof. Wu were good friends, Prof. Wu confided to him that he hoped Jun Ni could stay in the US. Wu said he was already an old man of 65 and would retire in several years. So, he hoped that his favorite student could take over his career.
As a pioneer of Chinese higher education reform, Chairman Deng had an acute eye for this great opportunity. Remaining at a top US university, Jun Ni could later introduce the most advanced technologies in the world to China, which would play a more important role than returning from the US at that time. Taking a global and long-term view, Deng resolutely adopted Wu’s suggestion. Thus, Jun Ni stayed and worked as an Assistant Research Scientist at the Manufacturing Research Center.
In 1992, Prof. Shien-Ming Wu passed away unexpectedly. This cast a plight on the College of Engineering at UM. At that time, the Manufacturing Research Center had an annual funding of more than one million dollars involving scores of students. People from both within and outside of the University of Michigan volunteered to take over the center. Besides, many of Prof. Wu’s students contacted the Dean of the College of Engineering with the intention to succeed their teacher.
In fact, Prof. Wu had been gradually transferring the center into Jun Ni’s hands. Learning of Wu’s expectation, the Chairman of Mechanical Engineering went to Jun Ni on this matter. Seeing Ni’s achievements at UM in the previous five years and impressed by his self-confidence, the Chairman and the Dean of Engineering decided to recruit Ni as an Associate Professor but without tenure at that moment. The Chairman intentionally offered Ni some time to prove himself in front of everyone. People would respect him if he earned a tenured professorship with his own efforts.
Jun Ni highly appreciated Wu’s mentoring. He hoped that his teacher’s name could remain on the campus of UM forever. Thus, Ni proposed to change the center’s name to the S. M. Wu Manufacturing Research Center. Usually, in US universities only those who have donated a large sum of money are likely to have a building or center named after them. However, the S.M. Wu Manufacturing Research Center was approved, entirely due to Prof. Wu’s outstanding academic contributions.
Although the sudden passing of Prof. Wu had overshadowed the center, it created a chance for Jun Ni. He was only 31 then, yet he had started to realize his ambitions. Jun Ni gathered all the people around him like brothers. Wu established the center, and Ni has not only upheld the center but also strengthened it. More than 70 fellows were at the S.M. Wu Manufacturing Research Center, including five professors and research fellows, over 30 graduate students, 20-30 post-doctors, and several visiting scholars. The annual research fund for the center reached 3 to 4 million dollars. It became one of the most influential manufacturing research centers in the US.
Standing on the giant’s shoulders, Jun Ni, like an eagle, was soaring high into the sky.