In this edition of LRCCS Faculty Spotlight, we interviewed Ming Xu, Assistant Professor in School of Natural Resources and Environment and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
LRCCS: Thanks for taking the time to conduct this interview. First I’d like to start with the basics – where do you call home? And when did you come to Michigan?
Prof Xu: I grew up in China and did my undergraduate and master’s degrees at Tsinghua University. I first came to the US in 2006 for a PhD program at Arizona State University.
LRCCS: How did you end up researching the environment?
Prof Xu: When I was taking my college entrance exam, I had to decide on my area of studies. At that time, environmental problems were just beginning to become a popular issue in China.
I wasn’t inherently interested in the environment, but its popularity made it seem like a good idea at the time. Later, the more I studied, the more it grew on me.
LRCCS: Almost like a man falling in love with his spouse from a forced marriage.
Prof Xu: Yeah. I had made that decision and I stood by it.
LRCCS: What is your research focused on now?
Prof Xu: I’m an environmental engineer by training. My coursework mostly focused on water treatment and pure engineering type things. But my research right now has nothing to do with environmental engineering. My work is at the intersection of technology and public policy. I’m looking at the environmental implications and impact of new technology.
To address sustainability challenges, engineering alone cannot achieve that goal. It needs a more interdisciplinary mindset. New technology tends to focus on specific demands, but that may have unintended consequences. For example, biofuels are supposed to be good for the environment because they come from renewable resources. But biofuels compete with other crops, which has an impact on food prices. Even from an environmental point of view, depending on where and how you grow the biofuel crops, it may result in even more CO2 emissions than fossil fuels.
LRCCS: What is your vision for your research?
Prof Xu: I hope my research will inform decision makers in the technology industry and in public policy to make more environmentally friendly choices.
LRCCS: How does China’s environmental condition now compare with places like the US or Europe when they were in their major stages of development?
Prof Xu: China is experiencing a lot of environmental changes that the US and Europe experienced before. In the past, these changes might have happened over the course of 100 years. But because development is so rapid now, in China those same changes might happen in 30 years. That makes China’s environmental problems more complex.
First, the magnitude of environmental issues is huge, given the population and size of the economy. Second, in the past, countries like the US might experience one major issue at a time, such as water pollution being a problem for a while, getting better, then maybe air pollution becomes a problem, then gets better. But in China, it’s like all the different types of environmental issues are coming together at the same time. Air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination. All these issues happened before in developed countries, just not all at the same time.
LRCCS: What’s the most important thing individuals can do?
Prof Xu: I don’t think there are any environmental problems which can be solely addressed by individuals. In order to really address these issues, you need a holistic or system-based approach. We must understand the interactions between the economic, engineering, social, and natural systems. And make sure whatever we do doesn’t have significant unintended consequences.
But one of the most important things people can do is ask questions about what they hear in the news and think critically about it. For example, there was recently a famous documentary that came out in China regarding air pollution, which was later censored by the government. But I support the take down of that video. A lot of stuff in that video is simply not true, and has no scientific background. Or, it was taken out of context and presented in a misleading way.
LRCCS: What projects are you working on right now that you’re most passionate about?
Prof Xu: In my field we do a lot of data analysis, coming from scattered sources. It’s difficult to find a sufficient amount of high quality data. I recently got a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a computational approach to collect generative data. So instead of collecting data points one-by-one in the field, I hope people can just go to their computer and click a button to generate data automatically.
LRCCS: This might be a dumb question, but is it too late to save the planet from things like global warming?
Prof Xu: Climate change is not my area of expertise, so I can’t speak scientifically about that. But I think it’s never too late.
Professor Ming Xu is currently working on Chinese Environmentally Extended Input-Output Database (http://www.ceeio.com/) which is sponsored in part by LRCCS. Thanks for reading the latest edition of the LRCCS faculty spotlight. Stay tuned for more!