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Lixin Wang, Ph.D., an associate professor of earth sciences at the Purdue School of Science is one of the recipients of the 2020 Research Frontiers Trailblazer Award.

Established in 2010, the award recognizes outstanding IUPUI researchers who show promise in becoming nationally and internationally known for their research and creative activity. It is given to associate professors within the first three years of being appointed or promoted to that title.

Dr. Lixin Wang is making waves with his ongoing research. His latest study, which has been highlighted by the National Science Foundation, shows environmental damage from fog reduction can be seen from outer space. Wang, an ecohydrologist and senior author on the study says it’s the first time that the effect of fog on vegetation has been observed from outer space. “The ability to use satellite data for this purpose is a major technological advance, an important use because environmental change is reducing fog levels across the world and impacting the relationship between fog and vegetation.”

Lixin Wang conducts water research in Namibia

Lixin Wang, Ph.D., conducts water research in Namibia. Photo Courtesy: Lixin Wang

While you may know him as an ecohydrologist, he’s also an avid traveler, having been to 49 states and all six habitable continents. He hopes to get to Antarctica in the near future. However, before becoming the expert and renowned ecohydrologist (and avid traveler) he is now, Wang was just a young boy driving his mom crazy by bringing home animals and insects to take care of. “The city I grew up in is surrounded by mountains and a large river runs through it. I loved to climb mountains, explore caves, and catch fish, birds and insects to raise them at home,” said Wang. “Even with my mom’s disapproval, I managed to maintain a small “zoo” at home. I was fascinated by living organisms and liked to study them.”

In middle school, Wang became intrigued by science fiction stories and admits he wrote a few stories, but they were not published. He does, however, subscribe to a science fiction magazine. “I think my interests in living organisms and science fiction triggered my passion to explore unknown things and do research,” said Wang. His childhood experience and love of science inspired him to dive into the world of earth sciences. “Because I love nature and love science, environmental science is a natural choice for my field.”

Wang received both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in biology before earning his Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia in 2008. He would continue his education, receiving postdoctoral trainings at Princeton and the University of New South Wales. Wang actually published his first research paper while he was an undergrad working on an honors thesis. He calls the first experience dreamlike, while the second time around brought him back to reality. “Publishing the first research paper was surreal and a rewarding experience when you think other scientists will read and discuss your work,” said Wang. “The downside of this experience was that I got an unrealistic expectation of scientific publishing. It made me think I might be really good at this and didn’t realize the usual cruelty in scientific publishing. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the second paper experience put me back into reality.”

Lixin Wang conducts water research in Namibia

Lixin Wang, Ph.D., and his now former Ph.D. student Farai Kaseke, conduct water research in the Namib desert. Photo Courtesy: Lixin Wang

That didn’t stop Dr. Wang. He has co-authored more than 120 peer-reviewed articles (out of >150 in total), many in top-ranked journals including: Science Advances, Nature Ecology and Evolution, Nature Climate Change, PNAS, Geophysical Research Letters, and the Journal of Geophysical Research. His work as an ecohydrologist, which is the study of interactions between water and ecological systems, has been in the news several times. “I recall the ones received more responses are either naturally interesting like how fairy circles in the Namib Desert form or has applied value such as drought impact on agricultural yield,” said Wang.

His paper on atmospheric CO2 increase and dryland greening received a big response, but some of it came in a way that Wang was not expecting. “Some websites used this information to support the climate denial’s view and they state that our research says CO2 increase is a good thing,” said Wang. The research was taken out of context. “In fact, drylands greening is not necessarily a good thing because sometimes the greening is caused by shrubs encroaching onto grassland, threatening the livelihood of many people whose livelihoods rely on grazing using rangelands.” Wang says it was a good reminder for not only him but all scientists to be careful when explaining results.

Wang’s passion for science and improving the world we live in is evident. His overall research goal is to better understand how changes in climate and other environmental factors impact vegetation dynamics and how vegetation regulates climate under a changing environment. “How vegetation responds to climate change is one of the largest uncertainties in climate science and my research will fill important knowledge gaps in this area,” said Wang.

It’s this drive that caught the attention of not only his colleagues, but others involved in earth sciences across the globe, making him the perfect candidate for the Research Frontiers Trailblazer Award. In his nomination letter this was stated: “These remarkable achievements in developing and funding a state-of-the art research program at global scales are absolutely worthy of recognition with the IUPUI Research Frontiers Trailblazer Award. Dr. Wang is positioned to have broad and deep impacts in research and student training in Earth Sciences, and more broadly as a research leader in the School of Science at IUPUI. I look forward to seeing his continued growth as a scientist and research mentor,” said Andrew Barth, Ph.D., Interim Department Chair, earth sciences.

Lixin Wang conducts water research in Namibia

Lixin Wang, Ph.D., and his now former Ph.D. student Farai Kaseke, conduct water research in the Namib desert. Photo Courtesy: Lixin Wang

Wang calls the recognition a pleasant surprise. “I am confident that I have been doing very interesting research and always pushing forward the leading edge of our understanding of how vegetation responds to climate change. However, there are so many talented and productive researchers at IUPUI, I am thrilled to be recognized by this award,” said Wang. He also credits his students and colleagues for helping him along the way. “I am also really grateful for my current and former group members as well as all my collaborators for their outstanding work. A lot of times I feel I have a good idea, but it’s really the hard work of my group members who make it happen. Without them, I would have never gone this far.”

Wang is passionately continuing his work in the race against time and climate change and wanted to share this, “Our Earth is experiencing unprecedented changes in climate since the start of human beings and vegetation plays a major role regulating the climate. Be kind to vegetation and be kind to our Earth, they don’t need us, but we need them to survive.”

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Wang’s work, please visit his lab website.

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