Photo: Chemmat’s Lecturer, Dr Shan Yi (Shan is standing in the centre, wearing a pink top)
Dr Shan Yi is our new Lecturer who joined Chemmat last November.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biochemical engineering, she got her PhD degree and became a scientist in Environmental Engineering.
Prior to the New Year, Shan went back to China to visit a few collaborating research labs. Here is her story:
A few weeks into my new job, I felt like I was in a theme park. Every day had been filled with fun and exciting activities: meeting new colleagues, discussing research opportunities, and exploring the university resources for research and teaching. Apparently, after all the fun, I couldn’t just retreat to a hotel room to flip through all the photos taken. Instead, I have to face some critical questions for myself, such as where am I going to lead my research group to deliver meaningful results to address the pressing environmental challenges in both New Zealand and the world? While contemplating the questions, I received a few invitations from friends and mentors in China to visit their research labs and discuss potential collaborations. Of course, I jumped on the opportunity with a sense that I would collect some wisdom from my friends to answer my questions.
Going back to China, my trip unfolded against the backdrop of China’s recent research progress. According to data from the Nature Index in the fields of earth and environmental sciences, the output of Chinese researchers almost doubled from 2012 to 2017 and is currently second only to the United States in the world. This tremendous improvement has been supported by substantial funding from local and national governments, as well as the continuing return of trained scientists with diverse research interests, toolsets, and international collaborations. The scientists that I visited are a nice representation of the successful returning researchers. Their research, all related to the field of environmental engineering and sciences, represents a broad spectrum of topics, including climate change impacts on microbial ecology, microbial genetics on biofilm formation and disassembly, applied water chemistry on pollution mechanisms and remediation, and biological wastewater treatments and resource recovery.
When I visited, it was the season for the China National Science Foundation’s annual call for proposals. Inevitably, we discussed some ideas about the proposals. Despite their diverse research interests, everyone seemed to think of topics related to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Indeed, reducing emissions of GHG, such as carbon dioxide, is an urgent issue. It is estimated that unless the world significantly reduces GHG emissions in the next two decades, climate change and the consequences will make large world areas uninhabitable.
As no one country can reduce emissions enough to stop climate change, the emissions pledges under the U.N. Paris Climate agreement call out all countries to take action. Many countries have made commitments to reduce or limit emissions. Just before I joined the department, New Zealand passed an ambitious law with the goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. As my friends told me, China is also making significant progress and seems to be on the right track to meet the carbon emission goal under the Paris Agreement. Although New Zealand and China are well positioned to achieve these goals, more needs to be done commensurate with the climate crisis. In New Zealand, methane, which is 30 times more potent to trap heat than CO2, was not included in the net-zero emissions. For China, the peak of carbon emissions is likely to occur before 2030, as set in the Paris Agreement, but China still has a long way to go to reduce carbon emissions. In both countries, there is plenty of room for environmental research to help achieve the goals. To this end, my colleagues in China and I can work together to contribute to a range of topics.
On the way back to my home in Auckland, my future research path became more apparent: I will leverage my interest in microbial metabolism and interactions to reduce CO2 emissions during wastewater treatment or bioremediation, help mitigate CH4 emissions from agricultural activities, and enhance microbial carbon fixation for the production of commodity chemicals. As novel bioprocess control strategies and new bioreactor configurations will play a vital role in these processes, I look forward to the collaborations with many colleagues in Chemmat to ensure the success of these areas. In the first week of the Chinese New Year, I am excited to embark on this new journey.