Of Journeys and Destinations: AI researchers Meng and Sharon share their story

She first came to New Zealand to visit friends, fell in love with the country and moved here on the Queen’s birthday in 2000. He followed a month and a half later.

Husband and wife stand smiling in front of harbour view

Meet School of Engineering and Computer Science staff Xiaoying Sharon Gao, Senior Lecturer, and her husband, Professor Mengjie Zhang, Associate Dean (Research and Innovation). Having started working at Victoria University of Wellington in 2000, the couple have been an integral part of the School’s growth story. Today, Sharon is one of the key COMP-100 lecturers, helping students make the transition from high school to university, while Meng leads what is possibly the largest evolutionary computation (a branch of artificial intelligence) group in the southern hemisphere.

Read on to find out about Sharon and Meng’s journey from studying together in China and completing their doctoral theses in Melbourne to making Wellington their home

Sharon: We completed our Bachelors in Engineering at the same university, after which we did our Masters’ with the same supervisors. That is how we met, back in the 1980s.

Meng: And there’s a little story there—I competed my Masters in three years, which was standard, while she completed in just two and a half years. Both of us then joined the university as staff but she was there briefly, starting her PhD after about 6 months and before we knew it, she was moving to Melbourne to continue her PhD there in 1995.

Sharon: I was always looking for the right opportunity. We were lucky that our Masters’ supervisor encouraged us to explore computer science at that time—and I was lucky to get a scholarship to finish my PhD at the University of Melbourne. I completed my thesis before Meng and came to New Zealand in June 2000, on the Queen’s birthday. That’s always easy to remember. In fact, I got the job here at Victoria University of Wellington first while he was getting offers from other places—Canterbury, Monash. Later, he decided to follow me.

Meng: I moved to Melbourne a year after her and spent the first year learning English and doing some casual work to keep myself going. I submitted my PhD thesis in mid-2000. Once she decided to move to New Zealand, I didn’t have much choice! Initially I thought she was joking. But my PhD supervisor offered me some words of wisdom—that both of us were young and if I didn’t join her, this marriage would most likely end in a divorce.

Sharon: It was easy for me to make the decision to move here. We had visited New Zealand before as we had friends here and I simply fell in love with the country. One thing I’ve always appreciated about New Zealand is how friendly people are. When I started at the University, people like Pondy (Peter Andreae), Robert (Biddle) and Lindsay (Groves) were very helpful. I worked with each of them to understand how to teach the introductory computer science course—we have 400-500 students taking that course. I used to go to their classes to see how they teach and they helped me understand how to write exam questions. Also I was the only female lecturer in the computer science group for a really long time and getting all this support made a huge difference.

Meng: And that was very different from my experience—I started work here on a Thursday and the next day I was writing a course outline for a COMP400 course. I spent the weekend preparing the first lecture and gave my first lecture on Monday. At that point, I wasn’t doing much research and I was expected to teach more. I was very happy to learn—I told the management that I could cope with whatever course/subject they assigned me. If the subject was new to me, I’d make sure I learnt and understood it well before I taught it. That has always been my philosophy, that whatever I do, I should first understand it in depth myself.

Sharon: Nineteen years at university does bring with it a lot of learning and experiences. I feel like I’ve never left school, never stopped learning. I really enjoy teaching and working with young people. And we have a lot of flexibility where time is concerned. I’m usually an early morning person and he’s a late night person.

Meng: Which means our daughter says we spend too much on electricity bills because our hours never synchronise! Personally, I enjoy both teaching and research. As the University has grown, the number of students and staff in this school has also increased and that means more administrative tasks for me. But I’ve had the opportunity to introduce new aspects to existing systems and I can see them working well, which is good.

Sharon: I often worry that he’s a workaholic. I kept thinking I should get him to go out more or do something else. But he’s really happy doing what he does, so I decided to join him instead of trying to change him. I should make him take a holiday at some point. I like exploring new things—skating, skiing, scuba diving—I’ve tried it all. I don’t do well but I try!

Meng: We used to get together with our Chinese friends in Melbourne every Friday and play table-tennis till past midnight. And there’s something that not many people know—in the early years after moving here, we travelled across New Zealand, often with friends from the university over Christmas and New Year. I enjoy driving and would often end up driving the entire day.

Sharon: There’s a fairly large Chinese community in Wellington and we used to get together with others regularly. Today, we have different hobbies – but the one thing I enjoy is that Meng and I cook together.

Meng: That’s true – no matter how tired I am when I get home, we cook together and we do enjoy that time together.

Sharon: I love the weather, the culture—over time, it’s become a part of who we are. The only thing I miss is time with my parents. But New Zealand is definitely home now, especially since our daughter was born here.

Meng: When I was younger, I never imagined that I would live overseas. Now, I really enjoy living in New Zealand and Wellington, so much so that I can’t cope with large cities anymore. Every time I go to a large city, I can’t wait to come back home to Wellington.