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Transnational scientific community collaborates to advance soil and water science

Young Xiaoping Xin stood tall in front of her elementary school classmates in Xi’an, China, her voice projects throughout the classroom as she shares what she had learned from assigned readings. Her teacher, Jiaqi Fan, with black, flowing hair and thick, wire-frame glasses, sat at her desk in the rural school, nodding. Xin’s presentation took place for only a few minutes, but it was the first moment in her life when she took a step for self-assurance. Instructor Fan had convinced Xin to stand in front of the class and to share her knowledge that would be useful to others. Fan had pressed Xin to speak loud and clear so that her friends would hear her.

To stand up and speak boldly is emblematic to the people of Xi’an, said Xin. About 22 years earlier than her first school presentation, local farmers had made reports about large quantities of clay shards present in their fields. The growers’ reports led to the discovery of one of the world’s most iconic cultural heritage collections in all of China’s history – The Terra Cotta Army. The red, fine clay full-armored army includes 8,000 life-size soldiers who still stand, at about 6-feet high, in their original positions, some, alongside horses. Each figure is unique. One has luxurious shoulder-length hair like Xin; another bears a soft, approving smile, like Fan’s; a third, shorter soldier has spiked hair, and stands in a crouch, ready to defend. The army was mustered to protect the burial site of Qin Shi Huang Di, China’s first emperor, who unified China. He died in 210 B.C.

Today, all of the clay warriors stand in their original position, in front of the nation’s first ruler’s grave, inside a room that looks like a vast airplane hangar. Wide columns of soil accumulated for more than 2,200 years separate the soldier line-ups. Qin Shi Huang Di and his army receive more than 1 million visitors every year. And the people who live in, and near Xi’an are proud of their heritage. Xi’an is an historic city in Shaanxi province, in the Northwest part of China.

Economic prosperity 

“The Terra Cotta Army improved the local economy in Xi’an because so many people visit to see the figures,” said Xiaoping. “All of the town’s people are proud of where they live and their spirits were lifted to know new prosperity,” said Xiaoping.

Instructor Fan taught Xiaoping and her classmates about intellectual prosperity. As a new graduate teaching her first class, Fan taught her students that they could work together to help each other improve their skills in every academic discipline. And, she was keen on bolstering each of her students’ confidence.

“My teacher (Fan) encouraged us to be brave and to collaborate,” said Xiaoping. “I still think about her – how she read paragraphs aloud to her students and how she encouraged us to stand and do the same – how to summarize.”

Teaching Aspiration 

Throughout her earliest educational experiences, Xin decided she would become a teacher. She understood the ability to identify a students’ passion and the power education offers young students for their future. All through her primary education, Xin planned to become an educator.

A career in soil and water science begins 

She studied Soil and Water Conservation at Northwest Agriculture and Forest University and earned a bachelor’s degree in the topic. There, she learned the basics of Soil Science and participated in extension activities with her fellow students. The students took field trips to rural farm regions and made recommendations to small farmers to improve crop production and field management. Xin and her fellow students were tutors for grade school students who needed help with homework.

It was during her work at Southwest University in Chongqing, China, when Xin knew she would become a teacher of agriculture. She met Xianjun Jiang, her mentor and master’s degree adviser. Jiang, a middle-aged man, not too tall, with spiked black hair and a broad smile, taught Xin about transnational scientific collaboration.

“Dr. Jiang’s character was ‘American.’ He brought open discussion to our group and encouraged us to study more about other countries and to get out of our comfort zones,” said Xin. “It is easier to study in China, but he told us to broaden our academics by studying at universities in other countries.” Xin said Jiang warned the students they would face language and cultural problems abroad but that their work would benefit greatly from collaborations with foreign scientists.

20th Soil Science Congress International meeting in South Korea

Jiang urged Xin to attend the 20th Soil Science Congress International meeting held in Jeju, South Korea, in 2014. Xin said the experience was breathtaking. She met thousands of scientists from nearly all of the world’s countries. One of them was Professor and Associate Center Director at the University of Florida’s Indian River Research and Education Center, Zhenli He. The center is part of UF’s statewide Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, with research centers in all of the state’s important agricultural production regions, and Extension services in every county.

“Dr. He is like Xianjun Jiang – always curious, always talking about scientific questions, and always excited and enthusiastic to work with others,” said Xin. “Dr. He likes to discuss and debate with his students. He also encourages us to debate topics – he openly accepts intellectual challenge.”

Xin said Zhenli He is always in an upbeat mood. He smiles continually and is warm and welcoming at every moment. When she completed a Master of Science degree in Soil Fertility, He offered Xin an opportunity to work in his laboratory as a visiting scientist, which she accepted. When she arrived, He encouraged her to apply to the UF Soil and Water Science Department for a doctorate. Xin applied and was accepted.

Nanotechnology: The size of an apple alongside the Earth

Now in her third year as a doctorate student, Xin is studying nanotechnology, working with nanoparticles. During a recent presentation to the UF/IRREC community, Xin explains with authority and voice projection that a nanotechnology particle is about the size of an apple alongside the earth and is widely used in both aerospace and in medicine.

“We are trying to use nanotechnology to improve the use efficiency of pesticides and of fertilizers,” said Xin. “To look at it, it is necessary to use an electronic microscope as nanoparticles are less than 100 nanometers large in at least one dimension.”

Nanotechnology is the production and application of extremely small particles, called nanoparticles. As the size of nanoparticles decrease, the proportions of crops increase, and boundaries are wider for more accessible application of targeted pesticides and fertilizers. For example, nano-formula fertilizers and pesticides are more quickly absorbed by crops, which reduces drug run-off. Nonoparticle technology also will enhance plant growth and food safety, and mitigate plant diseases, said Xin.

“Nanotechnology has great potential application in agriculture,” said Dr. He. “Xiaoping Xin is working to develop nano-delivery systems or use of nanoparticles for targeted delivery of pesticides and nutrients for crops. If the work is a success, this technology could have the potential to increase the efficiency of agrochemicals by crops and consequently reduce production costs and environmental impacts.”

Xin said she works to eliminate plant pathogens and to meet the nutritional needs of citrus trees in the most efficient way, with minimum side effects. He and Xin have successfully manufactured nanoparticles and tested them in the laboratory. The two scientists have also evaluated the technology for toxicity. A greenhouse study to measure the efficacy of nano-carried pesticides is in progress at this time.

“My research focuses on the development and evaluation of a new nano-delivery system for pesticides in suppressing citrus huanglongbing, the most serious citrus disease worldwide,” said Xin. “In this system nanoparticles can deliver pesticides and nutrients into a citrus tree’s phloem, or the interior of tree branches where huanglongbing collects and blocks the trees’ ability to take up nutrients and water.”

Award winning researcher

Her scholarly pursuits have been recognized with 9 prestigious awards, the first three were garnered in 2014: A National Scholarship for Graduate Students from China education ministry, Best Poster Award, earned at the World Congress event where she first met Zhenli He, and First Place, the “Hou Guangjiong” scholarship from Southwestern University in China. Southwest University also honored Xin with the Graduate Student Research and Innovation Award in 2016, and two First Place awards, the first in 2015; a second, in 2016. Those awards are the “Excellency in Graduate Courses,” and the “Graduate Student Science & Technology Prize” award. In 2015, Xin won a national award from the China Scholarship Council, the “China Scholarship for 2-year abroad study.”

This year, Xin is conducting two research projects. Both studies involve nanoparticle technology, the first of which began in 2015 about polymeric nanoparticles in nano-delivery system. The second started earlier this year about carbon nanotubes as bio-functional plant growth promoter.

University of Florida officials presented Xin with The George J. Hochmuth Education Award and the Doris Lowe and Earl and Verna Lowe Scholarship 2018-2019. To attend meetings, Xin has received three travel awards. This year her academic work took her to Greece, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“Dr. He always encouraged me to attend and learn from national and international academic conferences,” said Xin. “With the belief that communication is the bridge to win-win, I have presented eight research papers from my thesis research at national and international conferences and learned cutting-edge knowledge and skills.”

Xin wants to be a research professor and teach courses at a university. She plans to stay in America for a few more years for professional development. Xin is a primary author on five scholarly journal articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals such as the European Journal of Soil Science, Macromolecular Bioscience, and Catena. Xin is a co-author of six additional articles published in journals such as the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Science of the Total Environment, and Soil Biology & Biochemistry.

“I am learning how to get funding for projects, how to mentor students, and how to establish communications with the worldwide soil and water science community,” said Xin.

Xin frequently takes a moment to remember her first teacher, Jiaqi Fan, and the way Fan made her feel when she stood for the first time in that early classroom in Xi’an. “I always keep her words and encouragement in my mind,” she said. “And, I continue to meet great professors like Xianjun Jiang and Zhenli He,” said Xin.

Soil and water scientists from across the globe collaborate on research projects and share findings to advance food production. They are a unified force to produce food with the most efficient methods and save natural resources.

“They all stand with me and are ready to transform me to be a scientist,” said Xin. “Together we will fight environmental pollution and protect the world’s crops and food safety.”

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