Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
National University of Singapore
AsianScientist (Apr. 27, 2018) – Crabs and lobsters may be delicacies at the dinner table, but to Assistant Professor Yan Ning of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the National University of Singapore, these hard-shelled crustaceans are a valuable source of raw material for his research. Typically, waste shells end up in landfills or are simply discarded into the sea, but Yan recognized that shells contain proteins, calcium carbonate and a natural polymer known as chitin, which can be used as animal feed as well as chemical feedstock.
Yan’s lab thus focuses on biomass conversion, nanocatalysis and green chemistry, processes that are critical for the upcycling food, agricultural and industrial waste. For his efforts at paving the way to a sustainable future, Yan has received multiple awards for his work. He won the NUS Young Investigator Award in 2014 and the inaugural G2C2 Young Researcher Award in 2015. In 2017, Yan was conferred the prestigious Royal Society of Chemistry Environment, Sustainability and Energy Division Early Career Award 2017.
In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Yan shares about his research ambitions and the highs and lows of his research journey.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?
Develop enabling technologies to transform agricultural, industrial and urban waste into value-added chemicals and materials.
- Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.
When I first came to Singapore, I noticed that the people here really enjoyed seafood such as crabs and shrimp. The shells of these crustacean species, however, are left unutilized as waste. I came to realize that this is not only a problem for Singapore and the region, but also a problem globally. There are 6-8 million tons of waste crustacean shells produced every year!
As such, my research group and I saw underestimated potential of these shells as feedstock for value-added applications. We coined a term ‘shell biorefinery,’ referring to the fractionation and upgrading of various components in crustacean shells, and pioneered developments in this field.
Before we started the project in 2012, shell conversion into chemicals was almost a virgin field. Now, a few groups around the world have joined the arena, pushing the boundaries of shell biorefinery into uncharted territory and generating new chemicals, new materials and new applications in the process.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
I wish to continue to excel in fundamental research, especially in the domains of creating value from waste carbon sources and developing catalysts. In parallel, I will spend more effort on applied research. The main target is to commercialize the technology developed by my group, either through establishing start-up companies or through technology licensing.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
My PhD supervisor, Professor Yuan Kou at Peking University, had a profound influence on my academic career. He was trained as a physical chemist, but he was one of the pioneers in China promoting the idea of green chemistry. His vision and dedication to sustainability research strongly motivated me to work in this area.
Most importantly, I am deeply indebted to my mother who instilled the importance of integrity, education and hard work in me.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research journey?
Back in June 2009, when I was approaching my PhD thesis defence, my father was diagnosed with a serious heart disease that needed urgent surgery and hospitalization. Coincidently, my wife was pregnant. These, together with various issues associated with the final stages of completing a PhD, caused me overwhelming stress. I will never forget these sleepless nights staying at the hospital to write research articles.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
The gap between academia and industry is getting larger. I do not know what the cure for this problem is. Perhaps the evaluation criteria for academic funding should be modified. More weightage should be given to application-oriented projects and more credit should be given to people working closely with industry.
Personally, I think that it is now critical for our academic research community to come together to find a way to do science in a more sustainable manner and to create an inclusive, viable community that will transform the current practice of academic research.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
I would have become either a doctor or a high school teacher.
- Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
I watch documentaries and play with my two lovely daughters.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
I would replace all petroleum-based plastics with biomass-derived ones.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
Young researchers need not be restricted or limited to the territory established by our seniors, including leaders in the field and our mentors or supervisors. Instead, we should keep pushing the boundaries—dare to think differently and conduct research that has never been done by others. For me, I would rather fail in an unknown research area than stay in a comfortable place making incremental advances.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photos: Yan Ning.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.