Looking Beyond the Mountains

  • October 1st, 2021

Mingtai recalls when he was younger, he would always ask his parents, “What is behind the mountains?” Born in the village of Hejiaba in Sichuan Province of China, Mingtai Chen (PhD, Spring ’21) always had his eyes focused beyond the horizon. The tiny village sits on the banks of the Yangtze River and is surrounded by towering mountains covered in dense green forests. With only one way in and out of the village, these mountains created a sense of isolation for the villagers, especially the children.

The Yangtze River provides Hejiaba’s most significant export – ornamental river stones. These stones aren’t the pebbles you may pocket on vacation but heavy boulders for which Chinese stone collectors pay good money. Contrarily, the region’s rarest export is college students. Mingtai was a determined young man, becoming the first Hejiaba resident to leave the village to attend college, let alone acquire a doctoral degree. The event was so unprecedented, Mingtai mentioned that “when I got my offer from the university, there was a big ceremony at my home.”

While collecting information for this story, our team got to spend time with Mingtai at his aerospace engineering lab in Hardaway Hall. We ended up in the back of the historic building in a sizable warehouse-like space that serves as the home to The University of Alabama’s wind tunnels. With a dissertation dedicated to rotor-wing interactions, these wind tunnels are the catalyst for his research. To the average joe, the room looks like something out of a science fiction film. These tunnels dominate the room, and you can tell that Mingtai has found a new home.

Being an international student at an American university is an adventure experienced by few. When talking about the transition from China to the United States, Mingtai prioritized taking oral English classes.

“The language barrier is always an obstacle for international students, but living here is very comfortable,” he said.

He also found The University of Alabama’s weather pleasant.

“The climate is like Shanghai,” he said. “So you get used to the weather very quickly.”

Mingtai credits the classes in empowering him to adapt and engage in academic research. At the close of Mingtai’s interview, he looked back at his career at The University of Alabama with fondness and noted how lucky he has been.

He started by saying, “I really admire my university and hope UA can develop to be better and better…I hope many Chinese students can come to UA and to the United States. I’m glad I was able to make a small contribution to that.”

Mingtai is poised to continue his career in an assistant professor position in the United States. He will undoubtedly continue to make his village proud as he continues to look beyond the mountains for his next adventure.

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.