A Strong Bond

As UNT doctoral students, Xiaohu Xia and Zhiling Zhang unlocked the secret to successful careers in science — and a romance that’s lasted more than two decades.
Written by: 
Erin Cristales

iaohu Xia (’03 Ph.D.) and Zhiling Zhang (’05 Ph.D.) know a thing or two about chemistry.

For one, there’s their professional expertise. Xia utilizes his analytical chemistry credentials as a principal scientist at Mars, Inc., while Zhang deploys her biochemistry bonafides as a senior scientist at AstraZeneca.

And then there’s their personal expertise. The shrewd scientists may not have patented a love potion quite yet, but the couple — who met as doctoral students at UNT in 1999 and married in 2003 — have pinpointed the formula for bolstering wedded bliss.

It all comes down to listening, communication and patience, they say. And a little candy every now and then just sweetens the pot.

“When we were dating, I’d always buy her M&Ms,” says Xia, whose employer manufacturers the melt-in-your-mouth treats. “In the library, after we did a little bit of studying, I’d say, ‘I’ve got some M&Ms, should we take a walk?’ The M&M is actually something that’s part of our dating history.”

“It was a sign,” Zhang laughs.

Back then, as part of just a small group of Chinese doctoral students on the UNT campus, Xia and Zhang formed a bond more delightful than chocolate. They’d spend weekends with members of the Chinese Student and Scholars Association, perusing Chinese grocery stores in Plano to gather ingredients for meals that reminded them of home. (In Denton, they’d visit the nearby Sack N Save for groceries.) They also enjoyed the occasional card game, basketball matches at the Physical Education Building and watching the Mean Green play at the Super Pit.

Their lives intersected in the lab too. Xia’s Ph.D. advisor, the late Regents Professor of chemistry Zhibing Hu, and Zhang’s Ph.D. advisor, associate professor of biochemistry Douglas Root, collaborated on projects, meaning the couple also found themselves as collaborators, visiting the other’s lab to use instrumentation. Plus, Xia couldn’t resist sneaking coffee from the office where Zhang was stationed.

“I was upstairs in the Science Research Building, and she was downstairs,” Xia says. “Their office always had coffee, so I’d ask her, ‘OK, I need a coffee, can you help me get one?’”

Zhiling Zhang and Xiaohu Xia at the Fort Worth Stock Yards in 2001.
Zhiling Zhang and Xiaohu Xia at the Fort Worth Stock Yards in 2001.

When Xia and Zhang married on July 7, 2003 — coincidentally, the day of China’s Qixi Festival, also known as “China Valentine’s Day” — it was Hu and Root who witnessed the couple’s ceremony at the Denton courthouse.

“They weren’t just advisors. They were friends,” says Xia, who remembers spending half his savings on Zhang’s engagement ring, which he purchased at Golden Triangle Mall.

Following graduation, the two left for postdoctoral study at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois (they now reside in Chicago). But they took much more with them than just warm memories — their studies at UNT have served as a foundation for the phenomenal professional success they’ve found since.

Xia, who has spent the past 15 years at Mars, is the confectioner’s principal scientist, and one of his many responsibilities includes leading a research program to address sustainability issues related to chewing gum.

“When you think of candy, there’s a lot of science behind it, and the solutions are not straightforward at all,” Xia says. “I’m using a lot of the same materials science techniques I learned at UNT in my role coaching junior scientists. When it comes to troubleshooting a problem, it’s that same approach I learned from Dr. Hu that I pass on to them.”

Zhang, meanwhile, has worked at Hospira, Pfizer and now at AstraZeneca, testing the quality, safety and efficacy of pharmaceuticals, including oncology drugs and the COVID-19 vaccine.

“You can feel very tired from work some days, but thinking about how this is doing something good for the patients in the future, that I can affect a lot of people and save lives, it’s very rewarding work,” Zhang says. “And I still use a lot of the knowledge I gained at UNT, like in the structure analysis and characterization of proteins.”

Looking back on the 23 years since they first arrived at UNT, Xia and Zhang — who are now parents to a 16-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son — never quite imagined they’d be where they are now. But it’s the journey, they say, that’s meant everything.

“We really appreciate all that UNT provided us — the opportunity to get a good education, meet the best professors, to meet each other. Then we were able to take these things and move to a new city and develop our own careers,” Xia says. “We enjoy our work. We enjoy our family. It’s not dramatic, but it’s a pretty great life.”