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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Feb. 1, 2008

Changing paths

by Dan Kuester, News Service

Tong Wang

Tong Wang, faculty member in food science and human nutrition, changed her career and life paths when she came to the United States more than 20 years ago. Photo by Bob Elbert.

The résumré of this associate professor in the department of food science and human nutrition reads like any number of Midwest professors' résumés might: married after college, lived in Nebraska, master's from Arkansas, doctorate from Iowa State.

Even her off-duty activities are spent like those of many other locals: works out on an elliptical machine, reads when she has the time, takes her kids to their sports activities around the Midwest, active in her children's educations.

Her life is solid Midwestern stuff.

But when Tong Wang goes home to visit her parents, she doesn't drive to Wisconsin or some other nearby state. She travels halfway around the world -- to Beijing, China.

Wang goes by Toni (the "ni" ending on a name in Chinese denotes a friendliness and passion that suits this engaging and affable teacher and researcher). She grew up in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, the fourth largest city in China with more than 7 million people.

In the bustling city, Wang lived on the campus of Shenyang Agricultural University, where her father was a professor. In China at that time, professors were housed in university-supplied quarters. Growing up in an environment filled with intellectuals, she saw herself working in a familiar university setting one day.

While living with her parents, Wang met a student who studied under her father. Hongwei Xin is now Wang's husband and a professor in agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State.

Shifting gears

Wang likes her career, but it wasn't her decision to make when she started out.

"In China, my parents chose my major for me. It was pharmacy," she said. "They had a lot to say about what is good for you. Back then, we didn't have much freedom to choose."

Wang studied pharmacy in China, and switched to food science when she moved to this country more than 20 years ago.

She said making life-changing choices, such as committing to Iowa State, can be difficult.

"Working as a post-doc research associate at ISU following my Ph.D. study, I was interviewed and offered a faculty position from another university, and Hongwei was offered a comparable position there, too," Wang said. "The offers and the university were attractive, but Iowa State made it clear they didn't want to lose us, and we stayed.

"It has been a very good choice," she said. "For the types of research we are passionately involved in, Iowa is the place to be."

Wang enjoys her research on how better to use soybeans, corn, eggs, as well as biofuels and animal production systems. She also studies air quality, animal welfare and housing structures.

Wang also says the climate here in Ames is similar to what she was accustomed to growing up in Shenyang.

"People here have been very nice and supportive to us. We have our friends and our home, and our loyalties are here," she said.

Children choose own path

With grandfather, mother and father as professors, Wang's children might seem likely candidates for careers in academia. Wang isn't so sure.

"The tradition of professors may be broken with the next generation," Wang said. "My daughter was telling me the other day, 'Your and Dad's lives are so boring. You work all the time -- papers, reports and deadlines. I am not sure if I can stand to be a college professor as my lifetime career.'"

Wang realizes that times are different. When she was growing up, parental input had a large impact on the children's decisions.

"Now, if my husband and I suggest something to our kids, they will probably do the opposite," Wang said. "I hope they go to graduate school, but I don't know."

For now, Wang's children, Frances Xin, 18, born in Lincoln, Neb., and Chris Xin, 15, born in Fayetteville, Ark., are making the most of life as Midwestern teenagers.

Frances was named an all-state elite volleyball player for Ames High School and Chris is a top tennis player.

Last weekend was a normal one for Wang. She took Chris to a tennis tournament in Des Moines while her husband chauffeured Frances to a volleyball match in Minnesota.

"It was a typical weekend," Wang said. "One of us went north and the other went south."

Ties to China

Wang still has strong ties to China. Her sister lives in Beijing and her retired parents have moved to the capital city to be near her.

Wang travels back there once a year or so when her schedule allows, and she is excited about the changes she sees for the Beijing Summer Olympics this August.

Wang won't make it back to the Games, but knows they will be good for China.

While Wang keeps alive her ties with China -- she keeps a map of her home country on a wall in her office -- she is happy to be here.

"Coming here has been a very good decision," she said. "We are glad we stayed."


"The offers and the university were attractive, but Iowa State made it clear they didn't want to lose us, and we stayed."

Tong Wang