20-year-old Zhan Tong Zhang completes his Master's at EPFL

Zhan Tong Zhang lors de la Magistrale © Christian Brun

Zhan Tong Zhang lors de la Magistrale © Christian Brun

At EPFL’s annual Master’s degree graduation ceremony last Saturday, the Youth Prize went to 20-year-old Zhan Tong Zhang, who received his degree in chemistry and chemical engineering. The Youth Prize is awarded to the School's youngest Master's graduate who excelled his or her studies.

Zhan Tong Zhang, who is only 20 years old, will start his PhD in chemistry at EPFL next month. Alongside school, Zhan has been making the most of his time in Switzerland, discovering its landscapes, cities and museums thanks to the "amazing rail network" here. We spoke to him about his Master’s studies.

What was it like to be one of the youngest students at EPFL?

It wasn't really an issue that came up during my studies. But I guess there's a benefit in having more time to consider my future and my career. It gives me peace of mind and confidence in making my academic and life decisions. If there's any challenge that might be potentially linked to my age, it's probably my social skills – being too timid sometimes.

What did you like about your courses?

I liked EPFL’s chemistry curriculum since it "forced" me to gain perspective in many areas of chemistry (even though I wasn’t interested in some subjects at first). The flexibility in doing my Master’s project at the University of Basel also gave me an opportunity to broaden my horizon and add to my experience in Switzerland.

Did things always go smoothly during your Master’s studies at EPFL?

No. Actually I failed a course during my first semester, in part because I never took oral exams during my Bachelor's studies in Canada, but also because I may have been a bit overconfident about my grasp of the course material. I had never failed a course or exam (other than my driving exam) before that. At that time, there were other difficult personal situations that contributed to a general feeling of downness. I found EPFL's psychological consultation support very helpful, with the first session being entirely funded by the School. So things weren’t completely smooth, but it all worked out in the end.

Are you a workhorse, or do things come easily to you?

I would be inclined to say the former, especially for things that really interest me. I did feel some subjects were easy in high school and during the first couple years of my Bachelor's. But I think that is more based on the knowledge I had already learned beforehand, because it had interested me earlier, rather than on an intuitive ability to understand. At the Master's level, I found most materials were much more challenging, and it required quite a bit of work to understand them. And during that process I often discovered I had some knowledge gaps. But I have to admit that I can be easily distracted at times, and sometimes I should have worked harder than I did.

What will you do with your award money?

I haven't really thought about it. I'm probably going to use it for the rent guarantee for my new apartment [laughter].

Author: Laureline Duvillard