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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 76 journal articles and books, and given over 100 seminars, conference papers and presentations, mostly during his 15 years working at EPA. He also holds a patent for detecting water contamination events along with three other EPA scientists. At EPA, he has provided assistance to various stake holders, and worked on bilateral scientific collaborations between the US and China to protect the environment.

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

How does your science matter?

Science does matter.  Science matters for environmental protection and for our economy growth in real world application aiming at smart and resilient urban water systems. This drives my research at EPA.

Can a technological pathway be developed through effective adaptation to satisfy desired urban development and while adapting to environmental constraints in climate and water availability?  And how to use existing, or new technologies (e.g., sensors and data analytics, adaptive planning) to transform existing water systems and urban infrastructure of large footprints 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 are used to solve real world problems, such as in defining storm surge impacts and adaption options for a coastal community, applying satellite-based projection of lake water quality changes for improved drinking water treatment, and helping land use and infrastructure (transportation and water) planning as well as coastal emergency management using our scenario-based adaptive planning tools.

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

A pertinent scientific challenge is to find sustainable development pathways that meet societal needs without detrimental impacts to our environment, particularly the climate. To this end, an ancient Chinese philosophy Daoism calls for harmonic balance between Ying and Yang; in light of the challenge, between societal development and the nature hosting our activities. This philosophical concept combined with the long-standing human spirit in adaptation to natural changes, combined with the accelerating technological revolution will enable us to meet the scientific challenge for sustainable development. 

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 environmental 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 and nowcasting technique for surface water, scenario-based urban adaptive planning tool for efficiency while reducing carbon emission, the SmartWater system for resilience and water supplies, and storm surge projection and adaptation planning in coastal areas. 

I have led and executed cooperative research with people inside and outside of EPA. I worked on bilateral agreements with China, and enjoyed international cooperation that fosters new research ideas, technical approaches, and also allows leverage of financial and intellectual resources. Through these cooperative activities, our developed technologies have more opportunities 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 federal research and private industry in U.S. and China. I have my Bachelor’s degree in Geomechanics from the China University of Geosciences, two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences (CAGS), and Miami University in Ohio.  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 engineering, as well as on the environmental liability issues. Now I am a proud Senior Scientist with EPA ORD for the past 15 years. 

When did you first know you wanted to be scientist?

I believe in science.  Science and technology can make our societies more prosperous and equitable.  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 exciting and meaningful.

Any advice for students considering a career in science?

Science requires hard work, and often needs personal sacrifice. 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.