Office Hours with Aldo: Wendy Yang (w/ video)

Office Hours with Aldo: Wendy Yang (w/ video)

On Thursdays throughout the semester, staff writer Adalberto Toledo will book an appointment with a UI professor. Today: WENDY YANG, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology.

Yang got to design her own office space — including the three labs on the sixth floor of Burrill Hall where she's gotten her hands dirty for four-plus years.

Yang looks at dirt all day. She analyzes the greenhouse-gas emissions from soil and works tirelessly — often with graduate students by her side — to make sure her experiments go over without a hitch. And she makes sure her lab is clean after every experiment.

In December, she was one of four junior faculty members in the UI's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to be named as Lincoln Excellence for Assistant Professors, or LEAP, scholars, an in-house honor that recognizes outstanding teaching and research.

From superstitions that keep her lab functioning to hard labor for her research students, Yang is all about field work and the experience of being a "mad scientist" at times. (For more on that, watch the video).

Tell us a little bit about this recognition.

It was actually a nice surprise. I didn't realize that I'd been nominated. I definitely feel like I've worked pretty hard and that hopefully I've done a good job, so it's very nice to get that recognition.

But I mean, it's such an outstanding institution that it still is a surprise when you get selected to be recognized among all of these amazing peers.

Who'd you call when you found out?

Well, I was actually in a lab meeting. So I was just kind of nudging the people next to me.

Where were you before you came to the UI?

I was at the University of California, Berkeley. I was out there for 10 years before I came out here.It's so expensive to live in California, and the traffic! Although, I don't know, now that it's been four-and-a-half years here, when I'm driving down Lincoln Avenue, I'm like "Ugh, the traffic."

What about this space? Was it completely bare when you got it?

So actually, someone else occupied this space before. He's retired, so he was very nice to get out of the space to make room for me, and because he had been here for so long, it was time for a renovation.

It was really nice — they took all the ceiling tiles out, all the cabinets, all the floor tiles, everything. And I helped design the lab specifically for my research needs. We quickly outgrew the space, though, but what's been nice is that other people on the floor have been able to vacate their lab spaces, so we've now basically tripled the footprint of the lab.

We had so many projects going on, we needed the space.

You won the LEAP award, in part, for your research. What does that entail?

I'm really interested in greenhouse gases that get produced in soils. So this is related to climate change. What we often don't realize is that there are bacteria and fungi and other microbes that live in soil, and they breathe just like we do — except that some of them breathe out methane and nitrous oxide, which actually are more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide on a per-molecule basis.

What's really exciting to me about understanding methane and nitrous-oxide dynamics in soils is that there are not only microbes that produce it but also microbes that consume it. So there is opportunity to maybe manage our ecosystems where we can kind of get the microbes who consume these gases to kind of mitigate the effects of some of what the ones who create them are doing.

How does human activity play into this?

It has increased emissions of greenhouse gases from both managed ecosystems, like our agricultural fields here, and also natural ecosystems. Even if we aren't intentionally fertilizing natural ecosystems, there's a lot of nitrogen that gets emitted into the air that can travel long distances and then either fall as dry depositions or it can come through in rain.

We're kind of familiar with some of the effects of having excess nitrogen inputs into our ecosystems, especially in terms of water-quality issues. We can have that kind of negative impact even if they're far away from human activity.

What is it that you are doing here, on a micro level, to help mitigate some of these problems humans have caused?

One really exciting new development on campus is that we just got a huge Department of Energy grant to start a new bioenergy research center. It's called the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproduct Innovation; we call it CABBI.

What we're trying to do in this integrated group is to develop plant feed stocks that can be used for bioenergy and bioproduct generation. I'm on the sustainability team, where we're looking at the ecological and the economic sustainability of potential bioenergy cropping systems. One of the exciting things is that we're looking beyond using these crops as biofuels and going to increasing, for example, oil content in plants themselves, and that's a valuable bioproduct that can help farmers increase the value of what they are growing on their land.

So if they're not growing corn and soy, then they're growing something else that's valuable and that financially makes sense for them.

Thanks for letting me come into your giant lab.

Thank you!