Daowei Zhang, the Alumni and George W. Peake Jr. Professor and associate dean of research in Auburn University’s College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment (CFWE), has been honored as the recipient of Auburn’s 2023 Creative Research & Scholarship Award in the Sciences, Medical Sciences, Engineering and Agriculture.
Auburn University established the Creative Research & Scholarship Awards to honor faculty who have demonstrated excellence through research, scholarly work and creative contributions in their respective fields.
From the beginning of his career, Zhang focused on the world’s big questions. When he began his undergraduate studies at age 16, he was interested in photosynthesis, which he saw as pivotal to all the world’s greatest problems, from timber shortage to food insecurity. He wanted to work in tree physiology, studying whether the basic mechanisms of tree growth could be improved and made more efficient. Even a small difference, he reasoned, could have staggering implications for this once abundant but diminishing natural resource.
In 1983, during his senior year, a one-month study trip through historically forest-rich areas of southern China changed the course of his career.
Zhang saw huge swaths of land that could grow trees but were not. These regions had the climate, land, labor and capital to grow productive forests, yet the land was barren. This question haunted him, and he realized that the technical side of forestry wasn’t the path of inquiry that would lead him to answers.
FROM CHINA TO AUBURN, A LIFE’S WORK BEGINS
Working in China’s Ministry of Forestry confirmed his idea that politics and economics had a far greater impact on the volume of the world’s forests than tree physiology. Inspired by this philosophy, Zhang pursued two graduate degrees in forest economics and policy from universities in China and Canada.
Since then, Zhang has emerged as one of the world’s leading experts on forest economics and forest policy. Beginning with a series of articles published in the late 1990s, his work on promoting forests through secure property rights has influenced policy not only in China, Canada and the United States but around the world. The global influence of his research spans topics ranging from deforestation, environmental regulations and forest land ownership to political economy, trade and finance.
After earning his doctorate from the University of British Columbia, Canada, Zhang accepted an assistant professor position at Auburn University in 1994 and attained full professor in 2003. His tenure has included over 130 publications, including eight books, and more than $4.7 million in extramural research grants. His 2021 book, “From Backwoods to Boardrooms: The Rise of Institutional Investment in Timberland,” received the 2022 Outstanding Achievement Award from the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation.
Although this award may seem like the culmination of a stellar career, Zhang has no thoughts of slowing down. “The accomplishment I’m most proud of is the next one,” he said.
MENTORING A CULTURE OF EXCELLENCE
Zhang also takes pride in the success of his former and current students. His approach is to treat his graduate students as colleagues and to try to pass on the lessons he felt were critical for his own success. “I tell my students always to go higher, tackle the bigger problems,” he said. “And be guided with honesty and integrity in everything; sacrificing integrity is the one mistake you cannot make.”
In his 29 years at Auburn, Zhang has mentored 28 graduate students specializing in forest economics and policy, including 19 doctoral candidates.
Joseph Godwin is a Senior Model Validation Manager at Regions Bank and a former Auburn student. “What sets Daowei apart is his unique skill in seamlessly integrating economic theory and methods, addressing crucial issues in forestry,” he said.
Yanshu Li, an associate professor at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia, appreciates the emphasis on problem-solving she learned from Zhang, but even more, she remembers his encouragement.
“I had received a rejection letter from a journal for my first research manuscript,” she said. “He said, ‘Put it aside for the moment. If the research idea is sound, just keep polishing it.’ His words have been a source of inspiration for me when facing research obstacles, giving me the courage to overcome them.”
As the award recipient, Zhang will represent the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment on the Creative Research & Scholarship Award Selection Committee, commencing in the 2024 program year. His portrait will be displayed alongside previous award recipients in Samford Hall.
“We are immensely proud of Dr. Zhang’s remarkable achievements,” said Janaki Alavalapati, the Emmett F. Thompson Dean of the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment. “We strive to cultivate a culture of innovation and excellence in research in our college. His recognition is a testament to our commitment to advancing knowledge and making a positive impact on the world.”
(Written by Allison Killingsworth and Jessica Nelson)