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What's Their Secret

By by Ruby Gee     8/24/11 7:00pm

Ahhh DiffE. The mere pronunciation of the word strikes a keen sense of dread into the minds of many incoming students. Known as the "Orgo" of advanced math courses, the course is famously featured by three Rice students in "Teach Me How to DiffE," a YouTube parody of Cali Swag District's "Teach Me How to Dougie."

Making a 10-second appearance in the video is Mathematics Professor Zhiyong Gao, who has taught Differential Equations at Rice for more than a decade.

Known for his quirky sayings (affectionately referred to as "Gaoisms" by his former students), Gao has been praised for his earnest presentation of the material and knack for providing students with efficient example problems that prepare students well for his exams.

Professor Gao's quirky sweater wearing habit and distinctive voice has also made him a well known personality among math and science majors. Many of his students have never considered though, what kind of life Gao lived before entering the classroom and entertaining students with his funny quips.

Born before the institution of the one-child policy, Gao originated from a little city called Hailun, in the Heilóngjiang Province of Northeast China.

"I don't know, you might not be able to see it on a map," he joked. "It's not big."

Admitting that he doesn't remember a lot about his earliest days in the classroom, Gao describes a modest student life that he insists was pretty typical for Chinese students of his generation – one with small tables crammed in a plain building that lacked any sort of air conditioning.   

"There was no technology, no calculators, no TV, no nothing," Gao added solemnly. "Only a few subjects were offered and no technology was needed for any of that stuff."

Developing a passion for more complex forms of mathematics at the age of 15, Gao would go onto study at Fudan university in Shanghai — a city which he quickly came to call his own. For better or worse, Gao grew up under the political reign of Mao Zedong and later, Deng Xiaopeng. Partially due to the ever-shifting state of Chinese politics during his lifetime, Gao was able to obtain an educational visa from the government and come to New York for his graduate studies.

"At that time, they were just talking about it [Deng Xiaopeng's economic reforms] — talking a lot about it, but hadn't do much [sic]," Gao recalled, in regards to the political conditions of that time.

Though he at one point considered specializing in physics, Gao maintains that he always wanted to teach in the states. When asked about what he loves about the subject he ended up teaching, Gao revealed that what he loved was the nature of the subject itself.

"When something is wrong, it's wrong. When something is right, it's just right," Gao explained. "[Math]the subject is very logical…very clear, and very precise."

"What's Their Secret?" is a weekly feature that highlights a faculty member who has had a significant impact on Rice students.

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