Zhen (Jason) He, China: Discovering the unknown is a challenge and motivation
Meet a Chinese “Green Talent” and find out how a publication changed his life.
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 Ph.D. 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.
UNU: How does your research contribute to sustainability?
Zhen: 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.
UNU: Why did you choose to become a scientist?
Zhen: I did not think I would become a professor or researcher until my first paper was published in Environmental Science & Technology, which is a premier journal in the field. The paper made me proud of my work and also brought me the confidence that I could do good research. Of course I also like the lifestyle of a researcher: academic freedom and being my own boss.
UNU: What motivates you?
Zhen: 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.
UNU: Where does your interest in sustainable development come from?
Zhen: I guess it is from my undergraduate studies. I majored in environmental engineering, which I really had little idea about before I went to college. The job market for environmental engineers in China leaves much to be desired. Therefore many people in China complain about it. Regardless of this fact, I find environmental engineering fascinating because it is an interdisciplinary subject and the fields which it touches upon are wide-ranging, including environment, energy and others. I feel very lucky to have chosen this major. Originally, I thought I would choose computer science because everyone else did, but it was a wise decision not to, because later I discovered that I was very bad at computer language.
UNU: In your field, what would you state as a realistic goal and how would it be possible to achieve it?
Zhen: 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.
Science, Policy and Innovation
UNU: What do you think should be the role of scientists today?
Zhen: 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.
UNU: Do you feel that scientific results are properly taken into account by decision makers?
Zhen: It is tough to say. It depends on the attitude of individual decision makers towards science and also their personal understanding of scientific results.
UNU: Why is science important for innovation?
Zhen: The objective of scientific work is discovery and understanding, which is the foundation of innovation.
UNU: How can innovation be nurtured?
Zhen: 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.
Young Scientists and Green Talents Competition
UNU: How important are young scientists for industry-led R&D?
Zhen: 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.
UNU: What are the opportunities for young scientists in China?
Zhen: Young scientists are always the most active force driving scientific advancement.
UNU: As a winner of the Green Talents Competition, you are invited to visit some of Germany’s leading institutions. What would you like to see?
Zhen: I am interested in the green technology developed by German industry and higher institutions. I would like to visit RWTH Aachen University because it is one of the best engineering schools in the European Union.
UNU: In your opinion, what are the biggest sustainability challenges of our time?
Zhen: Understanding global warming and energy crisis.
UNU: Imagine Green Talents in 2050. What do you think will be the focus of their work?
Zhen: Alternative energy and energy-neutral water/wastewater treatment technologies.
International Research Cooperation
UNU: What role does international cooperation play in science and technology?
Zhen: 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.
UNU: What conditions are needed for international research cooperation?
Zhen: Availability of resources (e.g., funding) and mutual interests/benefits for all participants.
Oksana Buranbaeva (buranbaeva[at]vie.unu.edu)
Jessica Rosenfeld contributed to this article.
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Tags: Beautiful Minds, China, environmental engineering, Green Talent, Green Talents Competition, innovation, international research cooperation, MFCs, microbial fuel cells, outstanding young scientists, research for sustainability, Science for Sustainability, Sustainability, sustainable development, Tongji University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, UNU-ViE, UW-Milwaukee