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Who's Who: USDA Director Has Food Engineering, Food Safety at Heart

Three times a week we’ll feature a brief chat with someone who lives, works or plays in Albany.

Name: Howard Zhang

 Age: 51

Occupation: Center director of the

Describe your background. I got my Ph.D. in food engineering at Washington State University. Most of my research has been involved in processing technologies and packaging technologies. I did a lot of work in food safety.

How intimately do you need to understand each and every research project here? More understanding is always better, but as director of the center, I cannot be an expert in every aspect of the research. I understand the essential design or concept of the research. I meet with the research teams; I read all of their publications.

Why is the Western Regional Research Center located here in Albany? In about 1937 or 1938, the Congress passed a bill to build our research capability for agricultural utilization. This was called the Western Utilization Lab. Albany was selected as one of the locations. At the time we built one near Philadelphia, one in New Orleans, one near Chicago, in Peoria, IL. All were built in a suburb of a large metropolitan area that was a bit undeveloped. Albany was, at that time, not quite developed. Having federal funding would bring jobs to the region.

How long have you been here? Just a little over a year. I was [a research leader] at the Eastern Regional Research Center near Philadelphia for five years. I spent about 11 years at Ohio State University on the faculty [earlier]. Prior to that I did a two-year post-doc in Washington.

What are your duties as center director? I oversee the research and I’m also the location coordinator. [We’re] funded at $32 million, which is divided into 27 Current Research Information System programs. We have 82 research scientists and about 140 [permanent] support people. We also have some temporary staff.

As location coordinator I’m in charge of the facility. We’ve received about $14 million from the recent federal stimulus fund. With the renovation, we will have two state-of-the-art pilot plants [for food and non-food]. Companies come here to use our facilities.

We also replaced the pipe for the fire sprinkler system, at the request of the , to increase the capacity. We work very closely with the city. Our most recent agreement with the city was to grant easement and provide access for a through our property to link across the freeway.

Does funding for the center fluctuate from one administration to the next? Our funding is quite stable. We used to have more Congressional add-ons; now we have more base-funded [programs] and fewer add-ons.

Is there anything you’d like to add? I would say that one of the strengths we have at the Western Regional Research Center is the people. Most of the people we have here are very practical; they focus on their research. Overall, they’re very quiet and they do their work and they’re very productive. They’re low-key; they talk like a regular person. That’s part of the culture here at the center; maybe it’s part of the culture of the city of Albany. They don’t act like they’re better than anyone else.

Learn more about the Western Regional Research center on Albany Patch here.

Everybody makes mistakes ... ! If there's something in this article you think should be corrected, or if something else is amiss, give editor Emilie Raguso a ring at 510-459-8325 or shoot her an e-mail at emilier@patch.com.

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