Jian “James” Ma was 7 years old when he first helped teach math and literature to his classmates, the beginning of what would become a lifelong calling.
Growing up in Beijing, China, with a population in the millions, Ma had a lot of classmates. He was one of roughly 50 students in his first-grade class. His teacher picked a few kids to tutor classmates, and Ma was one of them.
He’d finish his assignments before helping others, something so natural to him that he was a classroom tutor every year until graduating from high school. Friends even followed him home for help with homework.
“I started my career, I guess, when I was in the first grade.”
Ma tried several jobs as an adult, including teacher, scientist, software engineer, researcher and business entrepreneur. It all led back to the classroom. He joined UCCS in 2014 as an assistant professor of information systems in the College of Business.
While teaching has always been a part of his life, as a boy he dreamed of being a researcher. In college he considered becoming a medical doctor, not to practice medicine but to conduct research.
At UCCS, he balances teaching with researching data, which could be anything from software to social media.
“Research is what keeps me moving forward, making me never stay in the same place,” Ma said. “Give me data, and I’ll find a story out of it.”
His current focus is on health informatics, analyzing electronic medical records of millions of patients from nearly 200 hospitals across China. The goal is to uncover patterns that improve disease prevention and health insurance policy management, among other areas.
Ma, who received a bachelor of science in chemistry in 1996 from Peking University, moved to the U.S. in 1998 when he was 25, landing his first paid teaching position.
“That was the moment I realized teaching can change a human being’s life”
He taught chemistry as a graduate teaching assistant at Texas Tech University. One student told him he planned to quit college the next semester, and that Ma’s class was the only reason he kept coming back. Ma nearly cried.
“That was the moment I realized teaching can change a human being’s life,” Ma said. “Back then, I thought, of course a teacher is important to the students. But when someone physically says it in front of your face, then it really moved me.”
He received a master of science in computer science in 2002 from the University of Texas at Dallas. In 2011, he earned a doctor of philosophy in management information systems with a minor in systems and industrial engineering from the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Ma, who has authored 16 publications, including journals and book chapters, with 10 more underway, teaches graduate classes.
Paul Gilliam, a senior majoring in information systems, had a negative experience with computer programming at another college and “never wanted to touch it again.” But during the last week of Ma’s Java programming class, he got a job as a data programmer/analyst with UTC Technologies Aerospace, an opening he learned about from Ma.
“Of all the professors I have had, he takes the most time to make sure students can use the concepts he teaches, which has really helped me as I start my career,” Gilliam said. “His enthusiasm is very motivating.”
Outside the classroom, Ma craves variety.
He coaches ballroom dancing, which he learned as an undergrad. He’s taking painting and horseback-riding lessons. Next year he plans to begin flight training to become a private pilot.
Ma owns an educational consulting firm based in China. It helps American high schools and universities recruit Chinese students, bringing international diversity while boosting financial shortages because they typically pay higher college tuition rates than U.S. students.
Although his business is successful, Ma wants to stay in the classroom. One of his favorite things is when students grasp a concept after finding it difficult at first.
“I’ve seen those satisfying faces before, when I was 7 years old and they say, ‘I got it!’” he said. “That’s the moment.”
He’s inspired by his former PhD advisor, a leading marketing scientist and researcher, who worked until the day before he died. He was 79.
“This is what I want to do,” Ma said. “This is my retired life. I’m going to keep doing this until I die.”
— Photos by Anslee Wolfe
Read earlier faculty profiles in this series here: