Giving Back to Pay it Forward: Statistics Department named for UK alumnus Bing Zhang

Photo of Dr. Bing Zhang and his wife, Rachel, inside their home.
Dr. Bing Zhang and his wife, Rachel, inside their home in Orlando, Florida.
By Richard LeCompte

Dr. Bing Zhang recognizes how profoundly his life was changed by a helping hand at the University of Kentucky, where he earned a doctorate in statistics. Now he’s helping UK students both personally and through a generous gift to his alma mater.

“When you help people, you make yourself happier,” he says. 

The UK Board of Trustees accepted a $6.35 million pledge by Zhang to the university’s Department of Statistics. UK President Eli Capilouto also recommended that the board approve naming the department the Dr. Bing Zhang Department of Statistics at the University of Kentucky. The board approved the recommendation in February 2020. 

The gift, a culmination of a number of donations he has given to UK and the department over the years, will focus on graduate education — specifically the creation of an endowed chair named for Zhang, travel and research support for graduate students and a visiting professorship, among other initiatives.


Growing Up in the Countryside


Dreaming of such support wouldn’t have been possible decades ago for the young man from rural China.
“I was born in the countryside in Jiangsu Province in China,” Zhang says. “My father worked at a shipping company, and my mother worked on our farm. I have an older brother and sister who are currently living in my hometown. They could not go to college because there was no normal college education at that time for 10 years. I was lucky China restarted college education in 1977. 

“After attending a public boarding high school for two years, I took the National College Entrance Exam and was admitted to the special class for gifted students under 15 years of age at the University of Science and Technology of China. The university is one of the top universities in China.”

After graduating from college in China, Zhang followed many other Chinese students in seeking graduate education in the United States. He applied to graduate programs at 10 different universities. None of them — except UK — offered financial aid or the kind of assistantship he needed.


Professor Ensures His Spot


 To confirm his placement, Zhang called UK collect. “Email did not exist at that time, so phone calls were the most effective way to communicate,” he says.

Connie Wood, UK Graduate School’s longtime professor and the department’s director of Graduate Studies, offered help. 

 “Dr. Wood told me she had not received my GRE scores, so I told her about them over the phone, and I had asked for the testing center to resend the scores,” says Zhang. “I called 10 days later. Dr. Wood told me that I was accepted with a teaching assistantship, and that the document had been sent to me by express mail. I was excited to hear the news. I applied for a passport and a visa after I received the documents, and I came to Lexington on Sept. 13.”

He arrived late, but Wood came through for him again. 

“I went to Dr. Wood’s office the next day. She was very surprised to see me since school had started two weeks before,” he says. “My TA position had therefore been offered to another student, but I was very fortunate. Dr. Wood got a new TA position for me the next day, so I wasn’t sent back home.”


Making Lifelong Connections


While at UK, Zhang met Jinzhong Xu (‘95 ‘97 ‘00 AS). They were graduate students at UK studying statistics, mathematics and computer science. For many years, they enjoyed walking from Shawneetown and Cooperstown to the classrooms on the main campus, sometimes routing through the woods, where the William T. Young Library now resides, to the Margaret I. King Library. Since their college days, their families have remained close, and they have even vacationed together.

“We were both from China, and we grew up with the same kind of experiences and interests,” says Xu, now manager of system applications at the American Board of Family Medicine in Lexington. “He is very talented, but very modest. He treats his friends very well.”

Xu says Zhang’s upbringing in the Chinese countryside helped to mold his character.

“He was nurtured by the simple culture of the country to be diligent and kind,” Xu says. “What Dr. Bing Zhang has done reminds me of a Chinese saying: ‘A drop of water in need shall be returned with a spring indeed.’”


Launching a Career


He defended his dissertation on biostatistics and the flow of drugs in the body in December 1993. Zhang then worked for statistical consulting and pharmaceutical companies before striking off on his own, forming multiple companies that help with the strategic planning for drug development, the design of clinical studies and statistical support in analyzing how drugs can save lives and treat diseases.

He founded MacroStat Inc. in 2002 and cofounded MacroStat (China) Clinical Research Ltd. in 2005. He is now president of MacroStat. He says he and his company contributed significantly to the health of humans through the analysis of how drugs work — and if they work. 

“Statistical consulting can provide input to the strategic planning of new drug development, the design of clinical studies and the identification of appropriate data analysis models,” he says. “It’s very challenging to develop a new drug. Most of the new drugs I’ve worked on have failed due to lack of efficacy and concerns over safety.”


Shifting Gears


Now with his success, Zhang tries to give something of himself back to the community.
“In my free time, I volunteer at the local Chinese school, the undergraduate school alumni association and the neighborhood home owners association,” he says. 

He also likes to help students on their way up in the field.

“I help a lot of students at UK to find a summer internship in clinical trials research,” he says. “I help them revise their CVs and tell them how to prepare for the interview. They need to study before the interview and learn how to answer interview questions.”


Giving Back to Move Forward


Over the years, Zhang has supported the department philanthropically, funding faculty positions and graduate students. His gift will have profound effects on the department and its students. 

“This gift from the Zhang family will provide immediate and long-lasting benefits to our department,” says William Rayens, chairman of the Department of Statistics. “The recruitment of quality graduate students has become a very competitive enterprise. To continue to recruit students of the quality of Dr. Zhang, we need an edge. The Zhang family gift, focused on graduate education, helps provide us that edge.” 
And UK profoundly appreciates his gift.

“A Chinese proverb teaches us that we are able to rest in the shade of trees planted by others a long time ago,” Capilouto said. “Bing Zhang has not only taken that lesson to heart, he has spent a lifetime living it out, for his family and for others who made a difference for him at UK. This gift, and his incredible and gracious sense of generosity, will benefit students and those they teach, treat, help and heal for generations to come.”

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