Yayu Li grew up in a small village in rural China. The school in her village closed in 2002 due to a declining population and lack of funding. With limited employment opportunities, many young people had left for jobs in cities. Having to travel to neighboring villages for school and living in a dorm by age 12 to attend middle school, Li realized the value of education.
In 2008, Li started college. Through scholarships and part-time jobs, she supported her studies and went on to earn a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. Arriving at UConn in 2015, Li is now a PhD student in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. She describes coming to UConn as the moment the “impossible became possible.” Here is what she said in an interview:
Where did you study as an undergraduate?
I earned my bachelor’s degree from Huazhong Agriculture University, Wuhan, China.
What was your major?
My major was environmental science with an emphasis in soil science. I also completed a master’s degree program at Huazhong in environmental science.
Why did you decide to go to graduate school?
I chose environmental science as my major because I love nature. As an undergraduate, I applied to a graduate research group and worked as a research assistant during my junior and senior years in order to learn more about the field. I had opportunities to do lab work with graduate students, attend academic seminars and discuss scientific problems with advisors. I was impressed by how dedicated the advisors and graduate students were to get precise measurements and accurate results from experiments. They wanted to find truth and reality. I wanted to be one of them and explore the unknown. Therefore, I decided to apply for graduate school.
Who is your advisor?
My advisor is Dr. Cristian Schulthess in Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. He is a soil and environmental chemist.
What is your field of research?
My field of research is soil environmental chemistry. I am studying cation selective adsorption behaviors in clay minerals and soils. Most cations can dissolve in the liquid phase and become mobile in environment. Therefore, cation adsorption and desorption reactions in soil are significant parts of understanding the fate of soil nutrients and contaminants. My research can be applied into remediation of sodic soils, radionuclide or heavy metal contaminated soils.
Name one aspect of your work that you like.
One thing I like most is that through the research work people are connected. Researchers from different universities and institutes study the same topic, share their knowledge through publications and seminars and collaborate with each other to achieve the same goals and contribute to the development of science and technology.
What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment so far?
A great thing I have achieved is passing the Microteaching test for international teaching assistants last semester. It was great encouragement for my language ability. I hope to have more opportunities to teach in the future.
What do you hope to do once you get your degree?
I’d like to continue to do scientific research. It is fascinating and never ends. Also, I hope to teach classes and share my knowledge with future generations.
Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?
I grew up in an undeveloped village of about five hundred in North China. The main source of income is from growing and selling corn. Since many residents, primarily men, left to find other work, the majority of the residents remaining in the village are women, the elderly and young children. It is their responsibility to work the farms and care for the family because the men work and live in cities most of the year. The majority of the village lives in poverty. Residents have an average sixth grade education. I worked very hard to get the opportunity to receive an education. I am the only PhD student from our village and the only one to have the opportunity to study abroad. When I was admitted to Dr. Schulthess’s research group in 2015, it was a miraculous moment for me. To be frank, I had never dared to dream to study abroad when I was younger.
My whole family is proud of me. I am proud that I am able to be a role model for people in my village and in my family. I hope to show people in my village the importance of education through my own work and life. I hope I can help to improve the lives of rural residents by showing them the power of education and knowledge. I also hope to help the development of rural areas in China or even the world through my research, which aims to improve the soil quality and crop production.
I am always curious and want to explore new things. I like traveling, seeing different places, trying new food, meeting different people and hearing different thoughts.