Beijing university VP, Auburn Ag alum treasures ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ memories

By Jamie Creamer

The only thing Zhaohu Li remembers about the professor who presented the seminar that day at China Agricultural University is that his last name was Qui and he had recently returned from a stint as a visiting scholar at an American university. In fact, that experience was the focus of his seminar, and for then–CAU agronomy senior Li, the seminar was a game changer.

“I started to dream for a degree in the U.S. from 1987 and that seminar,” says Li, who now is vice president of research at the Beijing university. “The talk opened a window for me. It was the very first time I heard the words biotechnology and clone. I suddenly realized there was science and technology abroad that could bring new technology to China agriculture.”

With studying in the States as his long-range goal, Li graduated with his bachelor’s degree, went straight into graduate school, was awarded his master’s in agronomy in 1990 and landed a job as an agronomy instructor and a cotton and corn physiology and management researcher at his alma mater. At that point, there was but one thing standing between him and his dream: English.


Through the years, the Inner Mongolia native had picked up on an English word here and there, but obviously, that didn’t cut it. So a couple of years into his job at CAU, he buckled down. Learning to read, speak, interpret and apply the English language became priority No. 1, and his diligence paid off in the form of a high score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, an exam most universities in the U.S. require for applications from prospective students in countries where English isn’t the official language.

At long last, it was time to go after his long-held dream. Ready, set, apply—but where? It’s important to note that he couldn’t explore his many options online because in China in the early ’90s, the public didn’t have access to the internet. So how did he make such a monumental decision? And how did he wind up at Auburn?

He takes the story from there.

“When we did the application, we were depending on an information book of universities in [the] U.S. and on the paper journals,” he says. “Auburn is at the first position in the alphabet index, so I believe Auburn is the most popular university.”

There you go. Mystery solved.

“Then I searched for a suitable professor for my interest,” he says. “Dr. [Harold] Walker, from department of agronomy and soils, was the first professor who offered my scholarship and accepted to supervise me as Ph.D. student. I only know he is working on weed science and herbicide physiology. I was interested in this area, too.”

On Sept. 4, 1995, Li set foot on Auburn’s campus for the first time. Nothing was as he had envisioned it.

“I did not have much information about Auburn University and America before I left China,” he says ‘Different’ is my first impression when I arrived.”

And nowhere was the difference more pronounced than in the language.


“I was poor in communication at the first quarter at Auburn,” he says. “Auburn’s Southern English always confused me at the beginning. However, the Southern accent is so sweet now.”

Li exceled in his doctoral studies at Auburn and was awarded his Ph.D. in agronomy and soils/weed science in 1999.

“My family spent almost five years totally at Auburn,” he says. “Sweet home Alabama is deeply planted in my memories.”

After Auburn, he completed a two-year post-doc at North Dakota State University and then returned to CAU as an assistant professor in the agronomy department.

But in 2002, CAU underwent a major reorganization in its college system that led to the establishment of a new College of Agronomy and Biotechnology. Li was chosen as the deputy dean, and he knows why.

“One of the important reasons was, I had a full experience in Ph.D. study at Auburn,” he says.

In 2011, Li was named vice president for research for CAU. He still has an active research program in herbicide-resistant physiology of cotton and the use of plant-growth regulators to promote cotton growth control.

Oh, and by the way, while at Auburn, he did go to a football game or two. His thoughts on that?

“Auburn Tigers always my best football team ever,” he says. “War Eagle!”

Tags: Feature

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