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Feature: A Tibetan woman's quest to predict quakes
update:March 08,2023
Zeren Zhima, chief designer of the application system for China's first seismo-electromagnetic satellite, the Zhangheng 1, speaks in an interview with Xinhua at the National Institute of Nature Hazards in Beijing, China, Feb. 25, 2023. (Xinhua/Liu Yanan)
BEIJING, March 7 (Xinhua) -- Many people, when asked to picture a Tibetan woman, will think of a weaver, a shepherdess or someone who performs folk dancing in music videos. However, Zeren Zhima does not conform to any of these stereotypes.
This slender woman is often spotted carrying a heavy laptop with complicated diagrams and curves displayed on the screen. She spends hours every day typing computer code and processing mass data received from a satellite 500 km away. Despite her origins in a remote area of the Tibetan countryside, Zeren now works at the cutting edge of modern science, specializing in the physics of the Earth and space.
Working at the National Institute of Nature Hazards, Zeren is the chief designer of the application system for China's first seismo-electromagnetic satellite, the Zhangheng 1. In service for five years, the satellite, which was named after an ancient Chinese seismograph inventor, has provided a large amount of scientific data on earthquakes around the globe.
Before a quake, movements of rocks deep below ground generate electromagnetic waves, which can travel through the air and even space. The Zhangheng 1 satellite was designed to capture the electromagnetic signals and send them back to Earth. By analyzing the data, scientists can trace the electromagnetic circumstances of previous shaking events and identify natural laws that will eventually help forecast impending quakes.
While using a space satellite to measure the shaking of the Earth's surface sounds cool, it can also be challenging. Many countries have launched similar satellites before, but they have all been retired from service. Zeren says it may take years before scientists can realize the goal of predicting earthquakes, but she doesn't regret undertaking such a task, as the work could save many people from disaster.
The desire to perform good deeds was nurtured in Zeren's mind from an early age. She was born into a rural family in Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China's Sichuan Province, in 1976. At that time, local women were destined to do farm work. But Zeren's parents did not want her to be reconciled to such a life. Her father, a voluntary school teacher, made sure his two daughters studied hard so that they could leave the countryside.
Zeren did not let her parents down. In her county's school graduation exams, she scored the highest marks, and was admitted to a college of disaster prevention technology in Beijing.
Her hometown is located in a zone prone to natural disasters, such as quakes, forest fires and landslides. She witnessed some terrible catastrophes in her youth.
"My parents always taught me to give a helping hand when people are in trouble," Zeren said. "I think that pursuing studies in disaster prevention means putting this idea into practice, which can benefit a lot of people."
However, coming from a simple rural environment, it took her some time to adapt to modern urban life. "I didn't know how to use a telephone or how to take the subway," Zeren said, recalling her early years in Beijing.
Added to which, she could not speak Mandarin very well and suffered from dyslexia. She had to work extra hard to overcome her various difficulties.
She practiced Mandarin pronunciation by reading newspapers out loud for hours, and immersed herself in piles of tapes and books to train in English listening and speaking skills. With two years of hard work, she became a straight-A student at the disaster prevention college.
In 1999, Zeren took her next step, pursuing a bachelor's degree at Guizhou Normal University in southwest China. She majored in computer science, a popular subject back then due to the rise of the internet in China. She was good at math and got offers of web engineering jobs from several foreign companies. But Zeren turned them down and chose instead to study geophysics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
At the country's highest academic institution in natural sciences, the workload was heavy, and she suffered from depression as a result. However, what kept her going was her original aspiration to devote her life to the welfare of others.
She received her master's degree in 2005 and found a job at the Institute of Earthquake Forecasting of the China Earthquake Administration. Three years later, an 8.0-magnitude earthquake hit Wenchuan County, causing widespread devastation. The "Zhangheng 1" project was raised on the agenda.
In 2009, Zeren took on two challenging responsibilities, becoming a key member of the research project while giving birth to a baby girl. She was able to balance the duties of mother and scientist largely due to the support of her family, with the mother-in-law taking on some childcare tasks.
Aware of the need for an interdisciplinary background, Zeren began to apply for doctoral studies in space physics. Juggling motherhood with in-depth research, she finally obtained a Ph.D. from Beihang University in 2014 after two failed attempts.
In her senior thesis, she thanked her parents-in-law, husband and daughter, saying that her family had provided the strong support necessary for her career.
The Zhangheng 1 satellite was launched in February 2018. Over the past five years, it has racked up numerous achievements, including obtaining global space electromagnetic field data, strengthening the monitoring of space weather events, and offering support for research into earthquake forecasting.
Zeren's team is now planning the second Zhangheng 1 satellite, followed by others that will eventually form a constellation of satellites.
She stressed that scientific research needs to be practical and realistic. Forecasting earthquakes is fundamental research requiring patience and persistence.
"We would rather spend decades on the research than rush ahead seeking quick results," she said.
The Wenchuan earthquake occurred on May 12, 2008. Since then, the National Disaster Prevention and Reduction Day has been observed each year on May 12. The room number of Zeren's office is 512. She said it acted as a reminder of her mission to help predict earthquakes and prevent such disasters in the future.
In the run-up to International Women's Day on March 8, Zeren's story has come under the spotlight, providing an example of the varied and important work women are doing in the modern world.
In pondering the reasons for her success, she said she kept her sights on "surpassing my previous self and fulfilling my potential."
She is also mindful of her parents' priceless guidance on the value of doing things for the well-being of others.
"I am glad of having a science career that can protect people's lives and safety," Zeren said.

by Xinhua writers Yuan Quan, Jia Zhao
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