Nunn School Distinguish Alumni Award Recipient Passion for Physics and International Security Leads to Career in Nuclear Security Research
Posted May 11, 2021
After receiving an undergraduate degree in physics and a master's degree in international relations from Tsinghua University, Tong Zhao decided to combine his love for global security and physics in pursuit of a doctoral degree from the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech.
In the Nunn School, studying international affairs, science, and technology, Zhao broadened and deepened his interest in nuclear arms control and global security. He interacted with experts in the field by attending workshops and events, which only helped him clarify his future career goals and establish a valuable global professional network upon graduation.
"Georgia Tech's open and collaborative environment allowed for many interactions with scholars, experts, and policymakers," said Zhao. "Had I not come to the United States to pursue my PhD, I would not have the same opportunities to attend events. Being able to participate in conferences and policy workshops enhanced my interest in pursuing research in this field."
In light of his already impressive professional contributions to international security as a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, Zhao was honored as the Nunn School's 2021 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient.
Time at Georgia Tech
Before arriving at Georgia Tech in 2008 to pursue his Ph.D., Tong Zhao only had two brief overseas experiences.
"A relatively small number of Chinese students to go overseas at that time," explained Zhao. "This was my first time exposed to a foreign environment, so I experienced a different culture, academic system, and society. It was very eye-opening and life-changing."
Growing up in China, Zhao learned about the United States only through textbooks.
"I come from a country where the social and economic conditions are very different," Zhao said. "In China, interpersonal relationships can be very indifferent, whereas people are usually more amicable in the United States. This is something I have never experienced in my life."
Zhao recalled that the Nunn School's faculty, staff, and classmates helped him integrate into his new environment. Many helped Zhao make connections, invited him to holiday parties, and welcomed him to participate in research projects.
Studying at Georgia Tech changed Zhao's outlook of the United States.
Contributions to Nuclear Security
Toward the end of his doctoral program, Zhao spent a year as a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In September 2021, he will celebrate his seventh anniversary at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, where he is a senior fellow.
At the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, Zhao’s policy analytical research focuses on strategic security issues, including missile defense, nonproliferation, nuclear arms control, strategic stability, and regional interest in China's foreign policy.
According to the Carnegie website, he is associated with over a hundred publications, presentations, and other professional activities.
His international experience has guided Zhao in his career and afforded him a well-rounded perspective. It has shaped his views and approach to conducting research.
"In my research, I sometimes develop a slightly different perspective from my Chinese colleagues," stated Zhao. "For example, many believe the United States would like to build a comprehensive missile defense network to neutralize China’s nuclear deterrent. I can't entirely agree with them, but it is because I have closely observed the domestic policy debates within the U.S. policy community and am convinced this can not be the case."
Zhao's understanding of both the Chinese and American perspectives gives his research a more pragmatic, strategic, and focused approach.
"Upon graduation in a short period, Dr. Tong Zhao has become a “go-to” expert on U.S.-Chinese strategic relations as remarked by several colleagues at different conferences from across the globe," stated Adam Stulberg, chair of the Nunn School. "He has a rare talent of being empathetic while communicating complicated issues to different audiences in a manner that is very familiar, reflective, and effective."
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