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Carnegie Fellow and internationally-renown researcher Professor Hanqin Tian traces his path to scholarly excellence from China to Auburn

By July 1, 2019 December 10th, 2019 No Comments

Auburn University Professor Hanqin Tian was named a 2019 Andrew Carnegie Fellow and will receive $200,000 to support his research on how Asia — home to more than half of the world’s population — can provide enough food for its citizens without causing detrimental effects on the environment.

Tian, who is the Solon and Martha Dixon Professor and University Alumni Professor in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, or SFWS, is one of 32 Carnegie Fellows nationwide selected from nearly 300 nominees by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which awards grants to recipients for their high-caliber research.

Tian is director of Auburn University’s International Center for Climate and Global Change Research and also leads the Climate, Human and Earth System Sciences (CHESS) Cluster.

“Dr. Hanquin Tian’s appointment as a Carnegie Fellow underscores the influence of his considerable work in the study of the effects of climate change and his search for solutions for populations to adapt and thrive in the midst of such change,” said Janaki Alavalapati, dean of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “The remarkable achievement not only establishes him as a leader in the field but also shines a light on the significance of his groundbreaking work at Auburn.”

During Tian’s fellowship, he will work to develop solutions to the impact that climate change will have on Asia’s food production; a region where in recent years has been subjected to extremes in climate that have resulted in dwindling cultivable land. At the same time, inefficient use of the area’s resources has resulted in a less productive and more expensive food supply.

Auspicious beginnings

Growing up in what he calls a “doctoral village” in southeast China, Tian dreamt of changing the world through science. His father was a teacher whose family had long emphasized the importance of advanced education.  Among Tian’s current family members, there are 15 teachers, working in arts, science and mathematics, at levels from kindergarten to university. That strong educational foundation led him to become an acclaimed professor and researcher.

Spelled out in Chinese characters, Tian’s first name, Hanqin, translates to “man who works hard.” Add his last name, and you get “man who works hard in his field.” Tian said his parents expected him to live up to that name.

And he did. Tian earned a bachelor of science from Zhejiang University, a master of science from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, in Beijing, and a Ph.D. in Environmental and Forest Biology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry at Syracuse University.

He was trained in the field of systems ecology, an interdisciplinary field of ecology that takes a holistic approach to the study of ecosystem structure and functioning. Professor Charles A.S. Hall, a world-renowned scientist, was his advisor.

His scholarly work at Auburn centers on coupling human and earth system dynamics to bridge natural science, economics and social science with research across the globe to address some of the world’s greatest challenges. He has published about 300 peer-reviewed journal articles, including six papers published in the highly prestigious scientific journals Nature and Science.

Tian has garnered an extensive list of national and international awards, including Auburn’s Creative Research and Scholarship Award and SEC Faculty Achievement Award. Tian has presented keynote speeches on greenhouse gas emission and climate change at international conferences in Paris, Stockholm; Beijing; Kobe, Japan; Scotland and Washington, D.C. Tian was also elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancements of Science, or AAAS, the world’s largest scientific society.

A study in perseverance

By the time Tian arrived at Auburn 16 years ago, he had learned that the road to success in research and education is full of alluring distractions.

“There are so many things that can change your trajectory,” said Tian, who came to the U.S. with his family in the early 1990s. “To me, it is very important that you have a passion for science. Then, even if you have a difficult time, you can persist.”

Tian cites his wife, Shufen “Susan” Pan, as a source of inspiration and support. He’s known Pan since childhood; their families were close neighbors and friends in China, and they shared a passion for research and education. He and Pan, a fellow SFWS faculty member who specializes in Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, now work together on multiple interdisciplinary projects.

“I want to thank my best friend, my favorite creative collaborator, my lifetime support – my wife, Susan,” Tian said. “I’m so blessed to have Susan in my life.”  

During Tian’s post-doctoral fellowship at the Ecosystems Center of the Marine Biological Laboratory, or MBL, in Massachusetts, he and Pan raised their two young children on his annual pay of $27,000, as Pan struggled to pay her tuition for computer classes as an economist. The family of four had to live frugally, with just one small car to transport them all.

One day, a former doctoral classmate, one of many who veered from academics to pursue a career in industry, visited Tian. As the vice president of a company in New York, the classmate said he wanted to create a position in his company — just for Tian — that would pay $135,000.

“It was so attractive to me,” Tian said of the offer. “My family’s economic situation would totally change.”

But Tian and Pan talked about how, if financial success had been their aim, they could have stayed in China. In Beijing, they’d both held lucrative positions. The sole purpose of their move to the U.S. had been to advance in academics.

The next day, Tian turned the offer down, marking a critical juncture in his career.

Dedication rewarded

Tian’s postdoctoral research adviser was Jerry Melillo, former Associate Director for Environment in the U.S. President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Tian said Melillo had a major impact on his life.

Melillo, director emeritus of The Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biology Laboratory and a member of the National Academy of Science, believed Tian could make great strides on a global scale. At that time, he also offered Pan a position in the GIS laboratory; believing the couple should work closely, in complementary fields. That led to Pan and Tian’s frequent research collaborations, combining ecology, economics and GIS, a research process known as coupling.

Since the early 1990s, Tian and Pan have worked closely on coupled natural-human systems, combining their respective expertise in ecology and economics. Their first co-authored paper was published in 1991. Both worked on numerous projects, including the first and fourth U.S. National Climate Assessments.

Tian’s Carnegie fellowship is focused on the concept of coupling human and earth systems.

“We want to couple the human and natural environment to face today’s challenges, like food, security and environmental stability from multiple perspectives – from natural resources, technology and economics,” Tian said.

Pan added, “It’s so important to apply a systems approach to studying the complex coupled system. It is essential to have a global perspective and international collaboration for ensuring global food security.”

Tian, Pan and their teams developed the Dynamic Land Ecosystem Model, or DLEM, a first-of-its-kind complex computer model of the land biosphere. Two decades in the making, the model simulates and predicts the ongoing dynamics including hydrological and biogeochemical cycles of the three major greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, across the land surface of Earth.

Over the years, Tian and Pan and their teams have conducted cutting-edge research in the U.S. and across the globe, particularly in Asia and Africa, to examine the ways climate change has impacted food, water and energy, and to strive for solutions.

Life and work at Auburn

Tian came to Auburn after hearing great things about the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, particularly its integrative study programs, combining forestry and wildlife studies with work from the Colleges of Math and Sciences, Agriculture and Engineering.

“Auburn really promotes excellence,” said Tian, who added that he is grateful for the support the university has shown for his research endeavors. “A very critical thing for me is the promotion of interdisciplinary programs.”

He cited the work and vision of SFWS Associate Dean of Research Graeme Lockaby, who headed the search committee that brought Tian and Pan to Auburn. The admiration is mutual.

“The hiring of Dr. Hanqin Tian was a very bright day for the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. We were very fortunate to be successful in enticing him to join us, particularly since he has turned out to be our finest researcher,” Lockaby said. “Dr. Tian is an incredible scientist with a phenomenal international reputation and is also one of the nicest people you might ever meet. His contributions to our school, Auburn University and international science in general are unsurpassed in my experience, and we are very proud of him.”

Aside from academics and research, Tian and Pan found Auburn’s weather to be remarkably similar to that of southeast Asia. Arriving for his first interview, he said, “It felt just like home.” And the family is extremely pleased with Auburn City Schools, which apparently did a stellar job in preparing their children for success.

Tina Tian, 27, is a resident in general surgery at the Boston Clinic after earning her medical doctoral degree from Tufts University. Her brother, Alex, 23, is a recent Samford grad who founded and directs an online education program for students in underserved areas throughout Asia and Africa.

Inspiring the next generation of world-changers

In the past decade, Tian and Pan have trained and prepared young scientists with more than 10 Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows who have become faculty members at several U.S. universities, including Iowa State University, Ball State University, Mississippi State University, San Diego University and the University of Illinois, among others.

“Professor Tian is an exemplary and visionary advisor who laid a great foundation for my career and is always my inspiration and role model,” said Wei Ren, a former doctoral student and currently an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky.

Crystal Wu, a former postdoctoral fellow and current faculty member at Iowa State University, also said Tian has proved to be a formidable guide.

“During my eight-year stay in Auburn, Professor Tian not only taught me how to do outstanding research but also showed me how dedicated and persevering an outstanding researcher should be, which profoundly influences my career and my students,” Wu said.

Both Tian and Pan said it is critical to inspire and encourage students to develop a big vision for their careers, recognizing that what they do is vitally important for society and the future of global development.

“We want to motivate them to develop their character, to work hard and have persistence,” Tian said. “Global climate and environmental changes affect the nexus of food, energy and water securities and threaten human health and well-being. It is essential to prepare students to be the generation that solves the grand challenges in climate change and sustainable development facing society and humanity in this century.”

Originally published in the SFWS Summer 2019 Newsletter.

(Written by Teri Greene)

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