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Meet EPA Scientist Jeff Yang, Ph.D.

EPA scientist Jeff Yang. Ph.D.EPA scientist Jeff Yang. Ph.D.Dr. Jeff Yang has extensive practical and hands-on water and environmental engineering experience in the U.S. and  overseas. He has published more than 58 journal articles and books, and over 100 seminars, conference papers and presentations, mostly during his 12 years working at EPA.  He holds a patent for detecting water contamination along with three other EPA scientists, and he recently provided assistance on bilateral scientific collaboration between the US and China to protect the environment.

Dr. Yang has a wide range of research interests in water science.  His current focus is on climate change adaptation and sustainable water resources in smart urban growth.

How does your science matter?

Science matters.  In real world applications toward smart and resilient urban and water systems, the science matters for environmental protection and for our economy. This is what drives my research at EPA. Can we develop a technological pathway through effective adaptation to satisfy desired urban development and to adapt to environmental constraints from climate and water availability?   And how can we use existing, and better yet, develop new technologies (e.g., sensors and data analytics) to transform water systems and urban infrastructure to be smarter and more resilient?

Such questions challenge many of us – engineers and scientists. Finding the answers requires innovative thinking and science infusion or integration. I understand why science matters when our developed tools and methods were used to solve real world problems.  For example, in defining storm surge impacts and adaption options for a coastal community, in applying satellite-based projection of lake water quality changes for more robust drinking water treatment, and in helping land use and infrastructure (transportation and water) planning of a midwest city using our scenario-based adaptive planning tools.

What do you think is our biggest scientific challenge in the next 20/50/100 years?

To find sustainable development pathways that meet societal needs without detrimental impacts to our environment, particularly the climate.  The ancient Chinese philosophy Daoism calls for harmonic balance between Ying and Yang; in light of the challenge, between human and the nature hosting our activities.

If you could have dinner with any scientist, past or present, who would you choose and what would you like to ask them?

I would choose Albert Einstein because he was such a visionary in science and scientific philosophy. The other would be late Professor J.S. Lee, a well-known scientist of the last century in China who established his theory of geomechanics almost 100 years ago through transdisciplinary science infusion.  His publications in 1930s on paleoclimatology and climate change would be an interesting topic to discuss, if I had a dinner with him.

What do you like most about your research?

I like what I do for many reasons. Not the least is the potential of solving difficult environmental challenges through science integration and by external research collaboration with private industry and international partners. Before joining EPA, I was a consulting engineer working on projects across the U.S. and overseas.  At EPA, I have had the privilege working with states, utilities and private industry.  This keeps the research and development closer to the practical needs.

Examples include the development of new satellite data processing techniques for daily water quality monitoring, multi-sensor real-time monitoring platform for surface water, scenario-based urban adaptive planning tool, and the SmartWater system to reduce energy usage and ensure quality water supply. 

Best of all, I have led and executed cooperative research with China through bilateral agreements.  This international cooperation fosters new research ideas, approaches, and also allows us to leverage financial and intellectual resources.  Additionally, our developed technologies have more markets in application for a better environment.

Tell us about your background.

I have a multidisciplinary background in environmental science and engineering, geochemistry and geomechanics, and have worked in academic research and private industry in U.S. and China. I have my Bachelor’s degree in geomechanics from the China University of Geosciences. I also have two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences (CAGS) in Beijing, and from Miami University in Ohio, in geochemistry, geomechanics, and water resources.  After graduate school, I worked in the U.S. environmental consulting industry for 13 years on soil and groundwater remediation, surface water and storm water management, drinking water and wastewater management, as well as on the environmental liability issues.  

When did you first know you wanted to be scientist?

I believe in science.  Science and technology make our societies more prosper.  I grew up in China at a time right after the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s, when science and technology were highly valued.  I was very interested in math and science in my childhood.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be doing?

I don't know if we can have such options in life.  If yes, I probably would choose science again. Working on new challenges makes life meaningful.

Any advice for students considering a career in science?

Science requires hard work, and often needs personal sacrifice in time and financial opportunities. Did I say “opportunity cost”? You may ask yourself; am I really passionate about looking for answers, solutions, and ways to do things differently and better? If the answer is yes, I'd say that science is one of the best rewarding professions.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the researcher alone. EPA does not endorse the opinions or positions expressed.