13 July 2023

International student from China seeks practical solutions to lower New Zealand’s agriculture emissions

People & Culture

Farmers and scientists alike are working to make the agriculture industry more sustainable and, meet New Zealand’s low-emission goals. The answer could be found in microbiomes according to post-doctoral fellow Cecilia Wang.

Cecilia came to New Zealand to start her university journey in 2009, from her home in Mainland China. She was drawn by New Zealand’s landscapes, flora and fauna and study environment.

Currently, agriculture makes up around 48% of New Zealand’s overall emissions, Cecilia has a keen interest in helping New Zealand reach its low emission goal of 30% less emissions by 2030.

Through her research, she aspires to contribute to the sustainability of agricultural practices by gaining a deeper understanding of agricultural microbiomes, which is the community of microorganisms found living together in any habitat.

Cecilia says not many people would know that microorganisms are the key to sustaining a habitat, and finding out how they work could help us revolutionise farming practices.

“Ruminant animals [sheep and cattle] rely on microorganisms to digest their food. Methane for example, is a byproduct of digestion that animals can’t utilise, so it is released to the air as a greenhouse gas.”

Cecilia says the good news is that there are microbial candidates that have the potential to conserve the energy and reduce methane production.

“Ultimately, I hope my research will pave the way for sustainable and resilient farming systems that improve food production, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote harmonious coexistence between agriculture and the environment.”

Cecilia knew as a child she wanted to work in the field of biological science. What interests her about agriculture specifically, is the importance of this field to humankind.

“For me, agriculture generally represents an assembly of life miracles. It encompasses the remarkable cycle of growth, nourishment, and sustainability that sustains not only human beings but also the countless organisms and intricate ecosystems intertwined with it.”

She’s been using Next-Generation Sequencing techniques to examine these microbial communities, using samples from various farm habitats like soil, rumen and pasture grass. DNA/RNA of the environment samples are then extracted, sequenced and analysed, which helps identify the key microbial players within New Zealand’s agricultural ecosystem.

When Cecilia found out that the University of Otago had the only Botany department in the Southern Hemisphere, this helped her make the final decision of where to go.

When she first arrived, Cecilia stayed with a homestay family. She says it was very helpful to stay with local people as it helped her understand local culture and learn some of the differences between English in everyday conversations and textbooks.

“I got confused when I first came across the phrase ‘what did you have for tea?’ I thought the person was asking me about drinking tea!”

During Cecilia’s time as an undergraduate student, she took every opportunity to explore the country, visiting place like Stewart Island, Franz Josef Glacier, and almost all national parks. She says these experiences were “truly remarkable”.

“Being someone who spent the first 19 years of my life in an urban city, the stunning landscapes of New Zealand have been awe-inspiring”.

Cecilia and her fellow lab members. From L to R: Syaliny Ganasamurthy, Lama Abdel Rahman, Cecilia Wang, Xochitl Morgan, Dan Hudson, Sven Tobias-Hunefeldt, Sergio Morales, Scott Lockwood, Jessica Wenley, and Kelsey Mckenzie

Cecilia completed her PhD studies at the University of Otago during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She says without the immense support of her supervisors and fellow lab members, her PhD journey would not have been possible.

“Their support and friendship have been instrumental in navigating the obstacles presented by the pandemic, and I am truly grateful for their contributions to my academic and personal growth.”

Cecilia says she’s grateful to have adopted her pet cat Zuki before Covid expanded, he’s provided immense emotional support throughout her study, especially during COVID-19 lockdowns

Next, Cecilia wants to become an independent researcher. She has the goal to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and practical applications, turning research findings into actionable solutions for agricultural and environmental challenges New Zealand is facing.

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