Dr. Yolanda Chen is a Gund Fellow in the Gund Institute for Environment as well as an Associate Professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Vermont. Yolanda was awarded her B.S. in Natural Resource Management from Rutgers University and her Ph.D. in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management from the University of California, Berkeley. Afterwards, she conducted postdoctoral research at UC, Berkeley as a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Fellow. She then worked as an entomologist studying host plant resistance at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines before joining the faculty at the University of Vermont. In our interview Yolanda shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:13)
Much of Yolanda’s free time is spent with her family, including driving her 10 year old and 14 year old children to their rock climbing competitions, biathlons, and soccer games. Yolanda also enjoys running and cooking. In particular, she has been having fun trying new recipes and exploring the world through food with a local cookbook discussion group.
The Scientific Side (4:34)
Through her research, Yolanda is working to understand the origins of insects as pests in agriculture. To do this, she investigates the origins of agriculture and crop domestication, and how these processes have changed biodiversity and the interactions between crops and insects. She is interested in understanding how insect pests have become so successful, including invasive insect pests like the swede midge that impacts local growers in Vermont.
A Dose of Motivation (6:31)
It’s really important to ask the questions that no one else is asking.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (8:20)
From early on in her childhood, Yolanda was driven to explore the world. She remembers watching Indiana Jones movies and spy movies filled with imagery of exploration and far away places. She wanted to understand our collective history as humans and how our world came to be the way it is now. Yolanda’s mother and father were a biochemist and an electrical engineer, respectively, so she was exposed to chemistry and computers as a kid, but these fields didn’t capture her curiosity. Yolanda was more interested in seeing new places and understanding the natural world. Her fascination with understanding the history and the people in different places led her to consider a variety of fields like ethnobotany, anthropology, and human ecology, but she ultimately decided she wanted to focus on how humans impact the environment.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (21:28)
During her postdoctoral fellowship, Yolanda switched her area of study from insect ecology to population genetics. She was trying to develop new genetic markers called microsatellites, and it was incredibly difficult. Yolanda felt immense pressure because her funding was going to run out at the end of two years. Her resourcefulness, friends, and scientific community helped her successfully make it through this challenging project. After her postdoctoral fellowship, Yolanda accepted a position at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. Her husband came with her, but he struggled to find meaningful work opportunities that were a good fit for his career. It was also difficult for them to have their first child so far away from the rest of their family in the U.S. Yolanda ultimately quit her job and moved back to the U.S. with her husband and daughter. Though she had been applying for jobs, there was still a lot of uncertainty. As a result, it was really exciting when Yolanda was offered a faculty position at the University of Vermont.
A Shining Success! (24:43)
Now that she has been awarded tenure, Yolanda is thrilled to return to investigating some of the research questions that first piqued her interest in her field. These are bigger questions that she realized would require time, resources, and collaborators to address. Yolanda has put together a team of talented scientists at the University of Vermont and across different institutions in Mexico to study the evolution of agricultural biodiversity in Mexico. Relatively little work has been done to understand how crops are adapted to local places and how diverse these crops might be. For example, one of her students is studying the biodiversity of insects that are associated with crop plants and their wild relatives in Mexico. Not much is known about insects that are associated with the wild relatives of crop plants, so this is a particularly exciting project. Yolanda is also looking forward to examining the sociological, ecological, and economic factors involved in why farmers grow certain varieties of crops. It will be interesting to reveal the dynamics involved in how people in contemporary times are controlling the evolution of crops and their associated insects. Yolanda also hopes that their work will spark interest for local people in Mexico to continue to explore their own history.
Book Recommendations (32:47)
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann
Most Treasured Travel (28:03)
Yolanda traveled to Vietnam to study wild rice and the insects associated with wild rice there. This trip was particularly memorable because she was traveling with her daughter who was a toddler at the time. After a long flight, it was a six hour drive to get to the research station, and then a four hour commute to get to the National Park where the wild rice they were studying grew. Within the National Park, they had the rare opportunity of traveling around by boat within the park to see different patches of wild rice. When they stepped out of the boat, the layers of dead grasses from previous years bobbed beneath their feet like a giant sponge. Though the scenery and science were phenomenal, Yolanda definitely faced challenges in traveling with a toddler. One night, the whole group went out to dinner after a long day of work. The restaurant was right on the water on top of a lagoon. It was incredibly dark, and there were many fish ponds nearby. Their server brought out a delicious looking platter full of fresh fish, garlic, scallions, and peanuts. Before Yolanda could protest, her daughter reached out, grabbed some food off the platter, and put it in her mouth. At that point, Yolanda had no idea if her daughter was allergic to peanuts, shellfish, or other allergens. She spent an anxious evening monitoring her daughter for any adverse symptoms, but fortunately everything turned out okay.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (34:18)
It was fun for Yolanda to have her own lab at the International Rice Institute in the Philippines. Lab activities and parties provided her with great opportunities to further engage and understand Filipino culture and tradition. Karaoke was a popular pastime, and Yolanda was impressed that many members of her lab had amazing musical talent. Yolanda has also taken her lab at the University of Vermont out for karaoke, and she hopes this becomes a new lab tradition.
Advice For Us All (38:28)
If you have questions that you are really driven to answer, make sure you are strategic and understand the risks involved with these projects. Think about when and where you might be best able to answer these questions. The most important thing is to stay in the game until then. Yolanda believes that science is something worth fighting for. Regardless of whether an individual ultimately pursues a career in science, scientific training provides valuable experience in how to ask and answer questions and think critically. These skills can help in any line of work.
Yolanda studies how the origins of agriculture and its spread have shaped the ecology and evolution of insects as pests in agroecosystems. Her group uses ecological, evolutionary, genomic, and entomological approaches to both understand why insects are so successful in agriculture and to develop novel approaches for improving sustainable pest management. Her fascination with the origin of crops has spurred her to explore the importance of geography for pest control internationally, including the Philippines, Vietnam, China, India, and Mexico. Although an admitted travel junkie, she also enjoys exploring Vermont with her husband and two active kids through hiking and skiing. In her free time, she runs, reads widely, pets her two cats, and experiments with cooking dishes from cuisines that are rare in Vermont.