UW–Madison graduate student Zhan “Ross” Luo died on Wednesday, Jan. 27, after a brief battle with T cell lymphoma. He is remembered by his family, friends, and colleagues as a kind person and brilliant scientist dedicated to his education, new adventures, and helping others.
At 29, Luo already had a decade-long history of study and service at the university. He grew up in China and traveled to the United States in his youth. In 2010, he moved to Wisconsin to pursue his dream of studying in the United States, and he graduated from UW–Madison with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2014. He performed undergraduate research with multiple faculty throughout those four years.
Shortly after graduation he began working as an associate research specialist in the lab of psychology professor Hill Goldsmith at the Waisman Center. In 2019, he decided to pursue a doctorate in the Neuroscience Training Program and joined the lab of Andrew Alexander, a professor of medical physics and psychiatry.
With a strong enthusiasm for the power of interdisciplinary research, Luo's interests and scientific collaborations spanned genetics, neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, biostatistics, and other areas. His work had already resulted in several scientific publications. While working with Goldsmith, Luo personally worked with hundreds of twins and their families who volunteered to be part of the Wisconsin Twin Project. The similarity of genetic material between twins allows researchers to better study genetic and environmental influences on the brain and behavioral development.
His research in Alexander’s lab focused on investigating genetic and environmental contributions to brain structure, as measured with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The project used brain images he collected while working with Goldsmith, who was also part of Luo’s graduate committee. Both professors remember him as an outstanding researcher and willing collaborator.
“Ross was an exceptionally motivated and promising young scientist in the field of imaging genetics,” Alexander says. “He was genuinely excited to be a graduate student with his peers in the Neuroscience Training Program and was excited to share his research results with others. He will be greatly missed.”
Luo’s presence was felt all across the UW–Madison campus. He was part of Badger Volunteers through the Morgridge Center for Public Service and studied in the English as a Second Language Program housed in the Department of English. Faculty associate Mary Wang taught Luo as part of this program.
She remembers his drive and discipline for study, uniquely combined with immense creativity and curiosity. His one-of-a-kind class paper on the marketing of a popular video game included impressive research and won first prize in the program’s international student writing contest in 2011, when Luo was just a freshman undergraduate.
“I’ve taught thousands of students in my career, and because language classes tend to be small, I’ve formed a personal relationship with pretty much every one of them,” Wang says. “All the same, after a couple of years — or ten — it’s hard to remember details about most of them. But Ross was that rare unforgettable student who I spoke of frequently. He possessed this incredible joyously authentic curiosity.”
Luo was also an active member of the Hoofer Sailing Club at Wisconsin Hoofers. His passion for adventure did not end on the water – he had an interest in aviation and obtained a private pilot’s license. He enjoyed taking up friends and family for trips around the Midwest, furthering his love of travel and new experiences.
“UW–Madison fostered the growth of Ross’ keen mind for 11 years, and he was part of our lab for more than six years,” Goldsmith says. “From the beginning, his scientific curiosity seemed unbounded but rooted in the fundamental question of how the human brain works. His life was far too short but nevertheless full of enthusiasm, meaning, and accomplishment. He touched us all, and his memory will inspire us.”
Luo was married to another member of the campus community, Catherine Steffel, who earned her bachelor’s degree in physics in 2014 and her doctorate in medical physics earlier this year.
Members of the campus community are welcome to share tributes and memories of Luo and their condolences to the family through Gunderson Funeral Home's website. A celebration of Luo’s life will be held at a time when it is safe to gather together.
If you are a UW–Madison student in need of counseling or crisis support as a result of this incident or any other situation, call University Health Services at 608-265-5600 (option 2) between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday to be connected with a crisis specialist. If you need immediate assistance after hours or on weekends, please call the UHS Crisis Line at 608-265-5600 (option 9) or visit the UHS counseling website.
If you are a faculty/staff member and would like to talk to someone about your reactions, call the Employee Assistance Office at 608-263-2987 or visit its website.