Meeting the Minds – Dr. Junye Wang

This week, making up for the holidays, we’ve got two installments of our Meeting the Minds column. This interview with Dr. Junye Wang was conducted by student Scott Jacobsen. Dr. Wang has come to AU as a research chair from the Campus Alberta Innovates Program

How did you become involved in Athabasca University?
My basic research is on multi-scale and multidisciplinary modelling. The Campus Alberta Innovates Program (CAIP) program provides long-term funding so that I can focus on development of an ambitious framework: the modelling framework of integrated terrestrial and aquatic systems. This will lead to a model of integrated watershed management, and recommendations for land- and water-use decisions for Albertans and Canadians.

You are a CAIP Chair, which is different from a Canada Research Chair. What does this position entail in terms of tasks and responsibilities?
The CAIP Chair in Computational Sustainability and Environmental Analytics provides leadership and vision to establish an interdisciplinary research program in the specified area of environmental sustainability and environmental analytics, promote excellence in research, foster national and international research collaboration and contribute to the reputation of Athabasca University in this area as a leading centre of scholarly excellence to attract high quality students and visiting scholars.

What is your professional area of expertise?
It is hard to say what my expertise is. In practice, I have worked/studied on (chemical, aeronautical, energy, and computing) engineering, environments and agroecosystem for 30 years. Although my research work has been applied to very different problems from chemical and mechanical engineering (e.g., fuel cells and gas turbines) to biogeochemical processes in agroecosystems (e.g., soil physics and nutrient cycling), these modelling work are all essentially based on three types of transports (mass, energy and momentum) and two types of reactions (chemical and biological). Therefore, this may be my professional area.

What is your teaching philosophy?
Because I have worked/studied on different disciplines, I realized that in the world of science and engineering, there were an infinite number of problems to learn, and, of course, it was impossible for anybody to study all of those that were related to his/her fields in one university. Hence, my teaching philosophy is summarized as a Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

As a teacher, rather than giving my students the solution to their problems all the time, I would like it to be that my students are capable of analysing and evaluating on their own. Students need to learn the fundamental content of the science and engineering courses. But beyond that I hope to facilitate the acquisition of life-long learning skills, foster critical thinking, and develop problem-solving strategies. Therefore, instead of searching for and solving all kinds of sample problems, they need to focus on the process of problem-solving in their science and engineering courses, and thus gain the ability to solve any problem whenever they need to do so. This will guide them toward becoming independent thinkers and lifetime self-instructors.

How do you promote capacities/skills of research students as a CAIP Chair?
As a CAIP Chair, I have promoted research-driven teaching and learning at AU. A cutting-edge research project is usually something that faces various challenges. Thus, it is an excellent opportunity for students to acquire the skills of critical thinking and problem-solving through real problems-driven learning. Through the cutting-edge research projects, research students can be involved in discussions by asking interesting questions on the project or by facing challenging concepts and, sometimes, paradoxes from the real world. Many cutting-edge research projects require teamwork, which helps students view different problems from different perspectives and disciplines. Thus, students can learn how the theory works and why different expertise and skills from different disciplines are required.

What research are you doing?
The Athabasca river basin (ARB) is ecologically and economically vital for the development and sustainability of northern Alberta communities. Industrial development and climate change are affecting both the ecological sustainability and the well-being of people along the river. While the oilsands offer huge economic opportunities, much remains unknown about the impact of resource development on the environment and society. My research is to establish a modeling framework of integrated biogeochemical and hydrological processes to interpret data and environmental projections. This framework will bridge knowledge gaps of dynamic interactions among nutrients (e.g., carbon and nitrogen), water, pollutants, soil and oil sands, vegetation, and climate.

This can deepen our understanding of the integrated river basin systems including, but not limited to, the land and water, which can determine future trends and relationships from multiple land-use activities in the basin. It can also identify key factors of the cumulative effects of agricultural and unconventional oil and gas production for watershed management. This will provide a new tool for how we might better use land to manage soil, air, and water, and make recommendations for policy and to aid the decision-making of oil companies.

What has your research discovered?
There are also major knowledge gaps in how tailings pollutants will degrade and diffuse through biogeochemical and hydrological processes above and below ground once they are put into a reclamation site. We are expanding the capacity of agroecosystem modelling and computational sustainability for assessing the environmental impacts of agricultural and unconventional oil and gas (oilsands and hydraulic fracturing) production on the agroecosystem. Our initialized results have demonstrated that the framework can identify key factors for watershed management across Athabasca river basin, but more work is needed for a policy support tool.
A lot of your research will need interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary efforts. What is the process of incorporating interdisciplinary work in the midst of specialist work like for you?
A river basin is a complex system in which natural processes (e.g., hydrological and biogeochemical) and social processes (e.g., human actives) interact. It is necessary to incorporate interdisciplinary researches if people want to understand such a complex system. In practice, it is not easy to incorporate different disciplines since researchers work usually on their own disciplines. Though we know these experts from different areas should collaborate to address the problems, different areas may use different methods and terminologies. A question is how different specialists could communicate effectively. What interfaces are between disciplines? In spite of clear boundaries between different subject courses, there are no such clear interfaces in the real world problems. My multidisciplinary background may help to communicate among different specialists to find these interfaces that foster efficiency collaboration.

Any advice for students on becoming involved in cutting-edge research?
Students can study and apply fundamental knowledge of the science and engineering in cutting-edge research. Cutting-edge research includes processes of innovation and creation. This is an excellent opportunity to help students acquire the key skills of life-long learning, foster critical thinking, and develop problem-solving through the processes of innovation and creation. They can learn how the theory works and why different expertise and skills are required. Moreover, a cutting-edge research project will promote teamwork and collaboration that helps students view different problems from different perspectives and disciplines. These skills may be more important than single knowledge in future career development and will be of life-long benefit.