Born on a small island in the Yangtze River, Shi excelled in school.
He was in the first wave of young Chinese students to study abroad when China began sponsoring students for overseas study following the opening policy of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978.
Shi was selected to pursue graduate studies abroad after getting a degree in optical science from Changchun University of Science and Technology in 1983 and a master's at the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics in 1986.
He thought he was going to the United States. But the Shanghai Institute instead sent him to Australia - a country, he would later joke, "I couldn't then pick out on a map" - to pursue a PhD in electrical engineering.
At the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Shi balanced a low-key affability and an obvious desire to succeed. He and a few fellow graduate students went in on a used car together.
"You could always tell when Zhengrong was the last person to drive it," said classmate Michael Taouk, "because there'd be a self-help tape like the 'Seven Habits of Highly Successful People' left in the tape deck."
He blew through the PhD program in just two and half years, becoming an Australian citizen along the way - one of thousands of Chinese students to be granted passports in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989.
The most important person Shi met at the University was Martin Green, then and now one of the world's preeminent solar energy researchers.
One afternoon in 1989, Shi knocked on Green's door. "(I was) very lucky, he was in the office," Shi recalled later.
In 1995, Green made Shi deputy research director of a university spin-off that was developing next generation solar technology.
Shi was content working with one of the top brains in the field, until the officials from Wuxi came calling. Green declined to comment for this story.