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Video about UD soil scientist Yan Jin: youtube.com/watch?v=Rh__5gorAvo

Global expert, treasured mentor

Photos by Evan Krape | Video by Ally Quinn

Soil scientist Yan Jin honored with Alison Award, UD’s highest faculty honor

Editor’s note: Prof. Yan Jin, the 2021 recipient of UD’s Francis Alison Faculty Award, will present the Francis Alison Lecture on “Interfaces: Soil Physics and Beyond” at 4 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 18, in the Gore Recital Hall of the Roselle Center for the Arts. Register for the in-person event here. A livestream also will be available.

University of Delaware Professor Yan Jin didn’t set out to become a soil physicist. In fact, when she was in high school, Jin wanted to be a chemist.

“I didn’t pick soil science or agriculture as my passions in the beginning, and it took me a while to develop my interest during my college years,” said Jin, who grew up in China during the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s.

As an undergraduate at the Agricultural University of Hebei, China, Jin met a female professor named Yunzhu Li, who was studying salt movement in soil. She helped Li install instruments in the field to monitor an area heavily affected by salinity. It was Jin’s first exposure to the fascinating world of research and where she discovered the complex chemical, physical and biological processes that occur in the soil beneath our feet.

That early mentorship, coupled with Jin’s innate curiosity, inspired her to keep exploring. Today, Jin is internationally known for her study of how water, gases, contaminants, pathogens and nutrients move in soil and other porous media. Her scientific efforts have provided new insights for addressing global issues in water quality, agriculture and food safety.

Now, Jin, the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences, has been selected to receive the University’s highest faculty honor, the Francis Alison Award. Named for UD’s founder, the Rev. Francis Alison, the award was established in 1978 and recognizes contributions and distinction as both a scholar and an educator.

“With the Francis Alison Award, we get the chance to recognize a faculty member who has distinguished themselves through their inspired teaching, their innovative research, and their dedicated leadership and service,” said UD Provost Robin Morgan, a professor of animal and food sciences at the University for more than 35 years. “Yan Jin wholeheartedly embodies these achievements.”

Professor Yan Jin has been awarded the University of Delaware’s highest faculty honor — the Francis Alison Award.

Jin’s early work at UD with Pei Chui, professor of environmental engineering, led to a patented technology for removing harmful microorganisms, including viruses, from drinking water. The method leveraged iron, the most common element on earth, to do the job. According to William A. Jury, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Soil Physics at the University of California, Riverside, it was a highly original idea at a time when chlorine-based technologies were more commonly used in water treatment.

“Prior to her study, no one had ever tested the efficacy of this element in removing biological contaminants, and it has caused a great deal of excitement,” said Jury. NASA agreed, naming it one of the top advances of 2007.

In 2015, Jin became the first woman to be awarded the Soil Science of America’s Don and Betty Kirkham Soil Physics Award, which honors the most outstanding soil physicists in the world. The award recognized her research to illuminate the underlying physical and geochemical processes involved in the transport of viruses and particles known as colloids — information critical for addressing soil and groundwater pollution problems.

Jin’s current work is expanding what is known about how to help soil withstand drought, a pressing topic given today’s climate change worries. She’s also exploring better ways to combat microbial contamination in leafy vegetables, such as lettuce, a project that has significant potential to impact food safety.

Talented researcher, treasured mentor

In nominating her for the award, Erik Ervin, UD professor and chair of plant and soil science, reflected not only on Jin’s research accomplishments but also on the way she inspires her students to continue pushing scientific progress forward.

“Dr. Jin truly models the outstanding scholar-schoolmaster spirit of Francis Alison by going the extra mile in training, supporting and mentoring her students,” Ervin said.

Soil scientist Yan Jin (left) studies the complex interactions and processes that occur in the soil beneath our feet. In one project, her research lab is looking for ways to improve soil’s ability to retain water — work that is critical to feeding a growing population under climate change. Yan Jin is seen here working in her lab with post-doctoral researcher Jing Yan.

In her more than 25-year career at UD, Jin has mentored more than 30 master’s and doctoral students, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers. She’s also invited visiting scientists, undergraduate and high-school students to participate in research. Her graduate students and postdocs take pride in being part of her lab and note that Jin always encourages them to think outside the box in their work.

Anna K. Jurusik, who earned her master’s degree in plant and soil sciences in 2018, called Jin’s impact on her “life-changing.”

“What I take with me extends beyond a couple of letters after my name and a piece of paper to frame. Under Dr. Jin’s mentoring, I’ve grown into a more capable and confident scientific researcher and a global citizen,” said Jurusik, now a doctoral student at the University of California, Merced. “She empowered me to identify and develop my personal qualities into strengths, ones that could generate new, creative ideas and ever-evolving questions surrounding my research.”

Former student Chongyang Shen, who is now a successful faculty member at China’s top agricultural university, echoed the valuable role that Jin plays in helping students reach their full potential, saying, “It is my sincere hope that I influence the students in my professional life as profoundly as she has affected me.”

Trusted colleague, humble collaborator

At UD and in the scientific community, colleagues concur about Jin’s important impact. Don Sparks, Unidel S. Hallock du Pont Chair in Plant and Soil Sciences and founding director of the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN), called Jin “one of those intensely bright and accomplished scientists who is modest, always placing others’ advancements and recognition above her own.”

“Not only is Yan a first-rate researcher and teacher, but she also is a model university citizen,” said Sparks.

Jan W. Hopmans, retired associate dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis, noted that Jin’s “unique experimental skills on virus and colloid transport combined with an in-depth knowledge of soil physical contaminant processes have made her a world authority in this area.” 

Meanwhile, M.B. Kirkham, University Distinguished Professor of Agronomy at Kansas State University, remarked on the effect of Jin’s work exploring how organic materials, such as carbon compounds, are cycled in soil.

“This work is key in knowing how carbon can be sequestered in the soil, a prime objective to combat climate change,” said Kirkham.

UD Prof. Yan Jin (right) works in her lab with doctoral student Shane Franklin (left) and post-doctoral researcher Mohammad Z. Afsar.

For Jin, though, it is the interdisciplinary collaborations and students she’s encountered along the way that have made the journey worthwhile.

“If I did something right, I'm most proud of my ability to reach out to people from other fields and try to bring them into my team. I have had some really interesting collaborators,” she said.

For example, she approached UD plant biologist Harsh Bais after learning about his work on UD1022, a beneficial bacterium that helps plants grow strong roots and withstand drought stress. The UD-patented microbe Bais co-developed was known to help plants regulate water evaporation, and Jin wondered how UD1022 would affect the soil.

After some discussion, she began inoculating soil samples with UD1022 and found that when the beneficial bacterium was present, it changed the soil structure in a way that allowed the soil to retain water over longer periods of time. Now, Jin and Bais are exploring whether the UD-patented process can be used to modify soil in dry areas of the world. It’s a promising result with potential, particularly as the world copes with continuing effects from climate change.

This ability to look across research areas and “integrate experiments and other observations with modern models to address some of the most challenging problems…” points to tremendous insight, according to Dani Or, professor of soil and terrestrial environmental physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich.

“Such career topical pivoting is indicative of Dr. Jin’s full grasp of the ‘big picture’ and the research landscape, with intellectual depth and ability to adapt strategies that offer the most promising avenues for transformative contributions to the field,” he said.

Reflecting on her selection as an Alison Scholar, Jin reported feeling “honored and humbled” to be chosen for the University’s highest faculty honor. Ever modest, she noted that her success is due in part to others, including the exceptionally supportive and close-knit soil physics community.

“I have been very lucky to have had great mentors every step of the way during my career,” said Jin. “Winning the Alison award is a tribute to all of the people who have supported me over the years and to [my] wonderful and hardworking students, postdocs and visiting scholars and collaborators, without whom this would not have been possible.”

About Yan Jin

Yan Jin, who joined the UD faculty in 1995, is the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR). Jin holds a joint appointment in UD’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She earned a doctoral degree in environmental toxicology at the University of California, Riverside, and holds a bachelor’s degree in soil science from the Agricultural University of Hebei, China, and a master’s degree in soil chemistry from New Mexico State University.

Jin is a fellow of the Soil Science Society of America, and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the European Geophysical Union and the International Society for Porous Media. She serves as associate editor of the Soil Systems and Vadose Zone journals and is a sought-after speaker, having given presentations across the world, from Brazil to China, the Netherlands, Austria, South Africa, Switzerland and more. She has been a guest professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and she remains an honorary professor at China Agricultural University in Beijing. She is a 2018 recipient of CANR’s Award for Research Excellence.

Professor Yan Jin has been awarded the University of Delaware’s highest faculty honor — the Francis Alison Award.

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