Q&A with Jing Wang

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Q&A with Jing Wang

Dec 22, 2021

We are excited that Jing Wang, a Ph.D. student in the lab of Dr. Yantao Li, was recently awarded the IMET Albrecht Fellowship. This fellowship, generously funded by our friend and IMET donor, Dr. Jim Albrecht, provides funding throughout the first year of study for a selected Ph.D. or MS student. We are incredibly happy for Jing and are excited about her research with Dr. Li. 

Let’s learn a little more about Jing and her journey into science. 

What got you interested in science?

Growing up I was very curious about life forms. As a high school student in Qingdao, China, I developed a great interest in biology. I loved working in our biology labs and had the opportunity to do several experiments with algae. This got me excited about the important role algae plays in the environment. Looking back, I believe my high school experience opened the door to the possibility of a career in science.

What is your research focus?

My research focuses on the microbial interactions between microalgae and bacteria. Microalgae, or phytoplankton, are tiny photosynthetic organisms that float in the upper part of the ocean. Microalgae and bacteria have a symbiotic relationship. A symbiotic relationship is a long-term interaction between different biological organisms. These relationships can be beneficial (mutualism), neutral (commensalism), or harmful (parasitism). I am focusing on the mutualistic relationship between microalgae and bacteria. 

What is your hypothesis?

I am currently starting the process of forming a hypothesis. To do this, I have begun looking through past research and literature on the microbial interactions between microalgae and bacteria. I have found that certain bacteria and microalgae have mutualistic interactions, meaning they provide benefits for one another. During the process of photosynthesis, the microalgae produce nutrients that are beneficial to the bacteria. The other side of this relationship occurs when the bacteria produce a substance called auxin that acts as a plant growth hormone. This substance is important to the growth of the microalgae. Auxin promotes the processes of cell division and cell extension in microalgae enabling increased growth. The auxin signaling pathway has been well studied in higher plants but less so in microalgae. The proteins that moderate auxin signaling in higher plants do not exist in microalgae. This led me to my hypothesis that there is an alternative auxin signaling pathway in microalgae and that this pathway must have alternative proteins that control auxin signaling. 

Why does this research make a difference?

Microalgae has the potential to play a very important role in the reduction of harmful emissions in the environment. Understanding how to increase the growth of microalgae through its relationship with certain bacteria would help decrease the amount of harmful compounds being pumped into our atmosphere. Microalgae can sequester, or store, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen, preventing them from being released into the atmosphere as harmful emissions. When the microalgae die, these compounds are returned to the environment. However, they have been converted to safer compounds that can now be taken up and utilized by other organisms, including humans. The oil we use is actually made of dead algae! This means if we have enough microalgae to capture all the emissions caused by burning oil, that very same microalgae will eventually become part of an oil-creating, renewable, carbon-neutral cycle.

How did you get interested in this topic?

As I mentioned, my high school experience really laid the foundation for my love of science. However, during my time in university I started doing a lot of lab experiments on algae, particularly, Phaeodactylum tricornutum, a specific kind of diatom. I performed numerous molecular experiments and learned that despite its size, algae is very important to the health of the environment. I was even more interested in algae when I learned that it can be an indicator of marine health. For example, if the nutrient level is high in the ocean, a green tide can occur. Green tides are areas where algae grows rapidly due to excess nutrients. In China, green tides, often made of the algal species, Ulva prolifera, have been disastrous for fisheries and tourism. However, the root of the problem is not the algae, it is the change in marine health that caused the algal bloom. Monitoring and studying algae can help us better understand the changes that occur in the ocean. This can help researchers come up with solutions to keep the marine environment stable and healthy, thus preventing green tides and other harmful algal blooms.

Why did you choose IMET?

I received my undergraduate degree from Ocean University of China. While there, I learned about IMET and its research. I was excited to learn that IMET was performing research on algae and its impact on the environment. In addition, I was very interested in the environment of the United States. There are many differences between the US and Chinese coastal and terrestrial ecosystems, and I believe learning about each other is important. Finally, I was drawn to IMET because of the variety of courses and professors. The MEES graduate program offers a wide diversity of courses and professors as it is a collaboration between multiple universities. 

Why did you choose to work with Dr. Li?

When applying to IMET and other programs in the US, I took notice of Dr. Li’s research topics. I found a lot of similarities between his focus and my past research and interests. Dr. Li’s interest in the impacts of algae on the environment made me very excited to work in his lab.

What are your career goals?

After graduating, I hope to continue my research. I really enjoy the process of exploring that research provides. Every day is different, and you may get very confused but that’s part of the process. As long as you never give up and continue to ask questions, the process is very rewarding. I love algae research and believe it has the potential to bring about real change!

If Dr. Albrecht was here right now, what would you say to him?

Thank you very much for your support of me and IMET, Dr. Albrecht! I was very happy and appreciative that I was selected as the recipient of your fellowship. You have lightened my financial burden, which allows me to focus more on my study and research. I hope one day I will be able to help students achieve their goals just as you have helped me!