Jan 5, 2017Yi Wang — Spudman’s 2017 Emerging Leader Award Recipient
You might say that Yi Wang’s decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biological science was the potato industry’s gain and the accordion world’s loss.
The decision was a difficult one but not a surprising one. Both of her parents were science teachers, so when it came time to decide on a career track between music and science, science won.
That career choice, made in Zhengzhou, China nearly 20 years ago, has come to benefit the U.S. potato industry. Since 2015, Wang has been a research assistant professor specializing in postharvest physiology at the University of Idaho’s Kimberly Research and Extension Center.
Wang is this year’s recipient of Spudman’s Emerging Leader Award (ELA), sponsored by Yara. She is the first woman to receive the award in its five-year history. She received the award during the National Potato Council’s annual banquet on January 6, in San Francisco.
“This is a big encouragement for me to continue my hard work,” Wang said about the ELA. “This award means a lot to me.”
“I was born in a teachers’ family,” Wang said. “My mom, Minfang Zhang, taught chemistry at a community college and my dad, Hongpeng Wang, taught high school geography.”
She said that growing up in a teacher’s environment presented many intellectual opportunities for her.
“My mom is a big fan of Chinese folk music,” Wang said. “”When I was a little kid she sung a lot at home and sometimes she would take me to her evening concerts. They asked me to learn playing the accordion when I was six years old.”
With 56 different cultures in China, the collection of folk music is diverse and she was surrounded by the many differing sounds of Chinese folk music.
Music has played a central role throughout her life and continues to serve as a refuge from life’s day-to-day trials and events.
“Music is a very important part of my life,” she said. “When I feel stressed out or I feel tired I want to listen to some music or play some music just to relax.”
Today she enjoys listening to Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Selena Gomez.
She earned a degree in biological science at Nanjing Agricultural University in 2007. It was during this time that her uncle, Renyi Zhang, encouraged her to continue her studies here in the U.S. Her uncle teaches atmospheric science at Texas A&M after earning his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“When I was in college he sort of encouraged me to go overseas and take the chance to study abroad,” she said. “That was kind of the incentive for me to come to the U.S. and get my Ph.D.”
Without a master’s degree she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2007 to study postharvest potato physiology with Paul Bethke as her graduate advisor. She finished her Ph.D. dissertation in 2012.
She then continued her post-doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin under a potato and vegetable Extension program led by A.J. Bussan prior to joining the staff at the Kimberly Research and Extension Center.
Her short-term goal at Kimberly is to earn tenure, Wang said with a slight laugh. In the long term, she wans to pursue there are three areas of research at Kimberly. First, she would like to collaborate with a pathologist on physiological mechanisms associated with bruising, fry quality and disease during long-term storage. Second, she would like to use her physiological background in assisting in new variety development. Finally, she wants to evaluate new irrigation technology and new hydrologic modeling tools to help in better water management.
Wang said her ultimate goal is for her research to benefit the U.S. potato industry and to help feed the world’s growing population.
“Any approach that can increase the resource use efficiency is of course very important,” she said. “I think one of the key solutions is new variety development and new technology. I think that’s the two major solutions to the challenges out there.”
She said that she enjoys the research opportunities and the research connections she has made in the U.S. and wants to continue working here.
“This award means a lot to me,” Wang said. “I’m happy that I got this award but this is just a start. I have a long way to go and I will keep making good contributions to the potato industry in this country.”