Jianhua Zhang

On his extraordinary journey from teenager barred from every occupation except toiling on a Chinese collective farm, to his current status as one of Nature magazine's top five crop researchers, Jianhua Zhang stumbled across Lancaster University – and then his life changed for good.

The shy young man who arrived at Lancaster from China in 1985 armed with a determination to improve life for his fellow field workers, had never been abroad. He had little schooling and practically no English. He left six years later however with a PhD, fluent English, several academic publications under his belt and having developed the basic theoretical framework behind deficit irrigation, which has revolutionised the watering of crops in arid parts of the world.

Now Professor of Plant Biology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and heralded by Nature magazine as 'one of the five crop researchers who could change the world', Jianhua Zhang, is clear about the importance of Lancaster in his astonishing academic journey. He says: "It changed my whole life."

He got there against the odds. He'd grown up during the Cultural Revolution in a family branded as 'rightists'. His mother brought him and his siblings up in an earth-walled hut with a straw roof, and his father had been sent away to a prison camp. Jianhua thus received minimal primary and secondary schooling, was refused permission to join the army or to work in a factory, giving him no choice but to till the fields.

He longed to make the life of his fellow workers easier and his top ambition was to build a brick house with a tile roof for his brother and himself.

His first stroke of luck came in 1977, when the Chinese government changed the university admission rules bringing in selection on examination scores rather than based on local government recommendation. Jianhua's high marks allowed him to go to agricultural college, where he found himself intoxicated by the power of knowledge and easily gained his BSc in Agronomy. Convinced that study abroad was the key to success, he began to teach himself English, by reading Charles Dickens – a simplified novel in one hand and a dictionary in the other.

Jianhua gained a Chinese government scholarship to study abroad and was given permission to go to England, for one year only. Lancaster happened by another lucky chance. In searching academic papers for potential supervisors, Professor Bill Davies' name cropped up more regularly than most and the academic was also the first to respond to Jianhua's enquiry about study possibilities.

"His letter was so friendly and encouraging." recalls Jianhua. "His lab was also doing research on plant stress, which is what fascinated me."

The inspiration for his life's work comes from his teenage farming days. Jianhua had been astonished that the yield in his family's rice plot was higher than expected, despite his worries that its elevated position had made it drier than the others around it, at the point it was making its grain. This stayed in his mind and Bill Davies at Lancaster was prepared to give him the chance to explore it – although the problem in Lancaster was too much rain.

During the Lancaster years, Jianhua did definitive work showing that plant roots can send hormonal signals to shoots in response to drought stress, and developed the idea that in some cases this could persuade plants to put all their resources into reproduction. His first paper was published within six months of arrival.

"I was so awkward and had no idea about so many things," laughs Jianhua. "I was afraid to answer the phone and could not understand what people said when they joked in the labs. So I threw myself into work. It was very exciting and I never got frustrated because I was so productive."

Davies and head of department Terry Mansfield soon realised they had a major talent in their midst, who worked hard and at great speed. Jianhua was encouraged to do a PhD (which he completed in 1988) and then to stay on to carry out post-doctoral research, until his first appointment as lecturer in the Biology department at Hong Kong Baptist University in 1991.

He is currently working on two water management processes – partial root zone irrigation (PRI), which involves letting part of the plant root dry out whilst irrigating the rest fully, and alternate wetting and drying (AWD) to economise on the amount of water used in rice paddy fields. He spends much of his life travelling around the world to academic gatherings, sharing his work. He has published more than 250 papers on the subject. He also has an editorial role for a number of scientific publications.

He says: "Today in all parts of the world they now realise that if you give plants less water than they need, you can improve their yield. That makes me feel very fulfilled."

This success would, in his view, have been impossible without his time at Lancaster. The friendliness and support he gained from his professors, allowed him to obtain the funding and a paid research position to stay on and develop his ideas after his PhD.

It also gave him the chance to open up socially. Through the international student society he made friends. He also joined trips to the Lake District organised by Bill Davies, who was coordinator for North American students. To his surprise, he also developed an appreciation for English beer and the usefulness of 'having a pint' as a networking tool.

Nowadays he meets his former mentor Bill Davies at conferences all over the world. He has kept in touch with Lancaster University too because of the gratitude he feels. He says: "I would like to help students like me, to finish their dreams."