For electrical engineer Zhuo Liu, completing a full marathon was a journey that demanded purpose, training and grit. Those same elements can be found along his path to MISO – the regional grid operator for the North American mid-section.
When Zhuo – or Joel, a nickname he prefers – was earning his master’s in engineering at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, MISO wasn’t even on his job-search radar.
Joel and his wife, Yan Li, had just arrived in the United States from China after she landed a position with the National Center for Toxicology Research, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration branch housed in the Pine Bluff Arsenal south of Little Rock.
“When I came to the United States, I was not good at English,” Joel recalls. “I learned to speak and write the language while pursuing my systems engineering graduate degree full time.
“It was a new country, new language and new degree,” he says with a smile.
After graduating from UALR in 2014, Joel was armed with the credentials he needed to continue his engineering career in the U.S. Back in China, Joel had already amassed several years of engineering experience as a field engineer and project manager for Shanghai Baokang Electric in Shanghai City.
After Joel’s graduation, Yan Li accepted a new opportunity that took the young family to Central Indiana. And soon, the couple welcomed their daughter, Sophia.
“When our daughter was born, I took time to stay at home with her before beginning a job search, so my wife could really focus on her new role,” Joel explains. While staying home, Joel – a longtime soccer player – decided to get involved with a local team in Fishers, Indiana.
“I searched online and found a team nearby,” he says.
Unfortunately, he received an Achilles tendon injury and had to abandon his pastime temporarily.
“I was unable to play for about six months and basically stayed indoors,” Joel remembers. “It was a tough time for me. I gained weight and became somewhat depressed.”
But Joel soon found another passion that led him back to fitness.
“After several months, I decided to start running – and it was an inspiration,” he says. “It was exercise not only for my body, but for my mind also. It helped me gain mental toughness – something any parent of a toddler needs.”
Joel was not only running, but back on the soccer field. And that’s where he learned about MISO.
“The captain of my team asked me about my major and thought I might be interested in this company called MISO,” Joel recalls.
He also met Hui Zheng, a principal engineer with MISO’s Forecasting team. That was his first time to learn about the organization. After reading more about the company and going through an interview process, Joel knew MISO was a perfect fit for his talents. And an opportunity in Outage Coordination for MISO South meant he and his family had a chance to return to familiar surroundings in Little Rock.
It was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse.
“As an outage coordination engineer, I help coordinate outages for both generation and transmission owners to ensure the grid remains reliable while generation units and transmission lines are out of service,” he says.
After two years, Joel loves his work and his community. And he’s finding new ways to expand his horizons and stretch his muscles.
On March 4, he ran in the Little Rock Marathon.
“I consider this my first full marathon, even though I participated in the Indianapolis Monumental in 2016, where I walked and ran” he says. “I knew I wanted to run in the Little Rock Marathon – and I focused more intently on training.”
His race time was 03:56 – about 250th among more than 1,800 finishers.
“It was a long process of conditioning to be ready,” he says. “It all started with my first run, and I gradually worked up to long-distance, endurance running.”
He runs four to five days a week, usually 5- to 10-mile stretches. On Saturdays, Joel and his wife can often be found on longer runs – sometimes 20 miles – with Sophia along for the ride aboard a stroller.
“We really enjoy the Arkansas River Trail,” he says.
Joel now has his sight set on his next milestone – completing an IRONMAN race, which combines a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.
“I swam for six years as a kid, last year I did a 100-mile bike ride, now I just have to put all that together with the running for the ultimate challenge.”
Joel says he will always be thankful that running helped him reconnect with his fitness and sparked an interest in MISO that brought his family back to Central Arkansas.
“The stars aligned for us to come back to Little Rock, something we wouldn’t have thought about,” Joel concludes. “One thing I’ve learned is you never know in life where your next stop might be.”
Photo: Zhuo (Joel) Liu, center, participates in the 2016 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon.