Although Columbia Law School attracts many students who have excelled in other professions prior to law school, it is not often that the same individual pursues both science and law. Yet for the Beijing-born Ms. Zhang, both careers have held enormous appeal at different times. Thus Ms. Zhang enrolled in the Law School in September 2001, just three months after defending her Ph.D. dissertation in biology.
Growing up in China, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, Ms. Zhang had been heavily influenced by Chinese intellectuals' reverence for both science and democracy. Given the opportunity to pursue a scientific career, she jumped at the chance to contribute to the modernization of her society. While pursuing her doctorate in biology at Columbia, Ms. Zhang became a successful biologist whose research on the oogenesis of fruit flies led to the discovery of a mutation that may have ramifications for understanding the growth of skin cancer in humans.
Yet despite her scientific skills, Ms. Zhang realized that a career as a biologist did not fit well with her personality. "Research and lab work is so confined," she says, "and that's not what I really wanted," she says. "As a lawyer I wouldn't feel so isolated."
Although the legal system had played little role in Chinese society during Ms. Zhang's upbringing, its importance and growth have expanded rapidly, even during the time that she has been living in the United States. And though she had little idea of what type of law she would practice at the start of law school, she had a strong sense that China needed lawyers who knew both English and Chinese to undertake international business transactions, especially with the United States.
Ms. Zhang acknowledges that coming to the United States was difficult at first because of language and cultural barriers. During her eight years at Columbia, she has worked with CUCSSA, Columbia's Chinese student organization, to help new students acclimate to American culture. "The hardest thing is getting used to the environment and making friends," she says. "Our organization tries to make it easier." She is also an editor for the Asian Law Journal and has worked toward legislation in Congress for less strict immigration laws to ease the process for international students seeking visas to come to United States.
Ms. Zhang thrived at the Law School, where she was impressed by the number of students who share her international interests. "Before I went to law school, I thought it would be a dull community, competitive, and not very easygoing, but I was completely wrong," she says, noting the surprisingly large number of students who are very familiar with Chinese culture and even fluent in the language. "The addition of the international LL.M. students makes discussion in the classroom more interesting," she says.
Ms. Zhang, who has avidly pursued an education in corporate law, is now working at Davis Polk & Wardwell, for which she completed a summer internship in 2003. She is hopeful that after several years of training in New York, she will have an opportunity to work in the firm's Hong Kong office. That notion is seconded by Ms. Zhang's husband, who is currently enrolled in law school at Harvard.