Zhen (Jason) He, China: Discovering the unknown is a challenge and motivation
The 33-year old Zhen (Jason) He is a 2010 winner of the International Green Talents Competition, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and supported by the United Nations University, Bonn. The award is given to outstanding young scientists from around the world, selected for their achievements in the field of sustainability research. A graduate of Shanghai’s Tongji University and the Technical University of Denmark, Zhen (Jason) He obtained a PhD in environmental engineering from Washington University in St. Louis. He is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, where he conducts research on bioenergy recovery from wastewater.
- How does your research contribute to sustainability?
- My current research focuses on bio-electrochemical systems for water and wastewater treatment, and bioenergy production. We aim to develop a novel approach to reduce energy use in water and wastewater treatment, and to enhance the recovery process of useful energy from the wastes.
- What motivates you?
- Curiosity is a strong motivator of my research. I like to challenge myself with something that others do not know or do not know enough about.
- In your field, what would you state as a realistic goal and how would it be possible to achieve it?
- Research always comes with the risk of failure. I have the ambitious goal of seeing the full scale application of the technology developed in my lab; I also have a more realistic goal of gaining more understanding of bio-electrochemical systems and accumulating more experience for its development. It’s impossible to achieve those goals (both ambitious and realistic) with the sole efforts from my lab. We need to actively communicate and collaborate with others in the field.
- What do you think should be the role of scientists today?
- Scientists should keep working on discovery and understanding of this world where we are living. They should also educate people and provide suggestion to policy makers.
- How can innovation be nurtured?
- One of the most important things to foster innovation is patience and respect of scientific work. Market-driven research usually requires fast track work with the obvious end result being to make a profit. Such a process can ignore many details that are important to innovation. We need patience! On the other hand, companies, private sector or government should respect scientists’ work. They need to understand that basic science is needed to develop a mature product.
- How important are young scientists for industry-led Research & Development?
- From my collaboration with industry, I can see that young scientists are an important source for industry-led R&D. Major industries are always looking for qualified young scientists to join them in their R&D work. One of my Ph.D. students is financially supported by a major water company in Milwaukee to conduct research in my lab. Once her Ph.D. is completed, she will return to their company for continuous R&D work. Given the current financial situation, such an action surely demonstrates how important young scientists are for industry R&D.
- In your opinion, what are the biggest sustainability challenges of our time?
- Understanding global warming and energy crisis.
- Imagine Green Talents in 2050. What do you think will be the focus of their work?
- Alternative energy and energy-neutral water/wastewater treatment technologies.
- What role does international cooperation play in science and technology?
- International cooperation will surely promote innovation and related research. I had previous experiences and currently am collaborating with scientists from other nations. But one key thing that should be taken into consideration is how collaboration is conducted. Due to the distance, many research functions can hardly be performed, except for computer-related research.
- What conditions are needed for international research cooperation?
- Availability of resources (e.g., funding) and mutual interests/benefits for all participants.
Read the full interview and share your thoughts in the comments section.
Interview: Oksana Buranbaeva, UNU-ViE
Jessica Rosenfeld, UNU-ViE, contributed to this article.