Graduate Study
Ph.D. Student Spotlight
Ph.D. Student Spotlight: Jiaxing Wang

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Jiaxing Wang

Jiaxing Wang began his Ph.D. in the dark--literally. Jiaxing attended classes remotely in China because of the 2020 pandemic, often logging into his morning classes at midnight due to the time difference. Four years later, things have only gotten brighter for Jiaxing. He is the first author on his first paper, "Electrostatic coupling and water bridging in adsorption hierarchy of biomolecules at water-clay interfaces," which was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy (PNAS), and he looks forward to continuing his research and mentoring others. 

Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Shanxi, China.  

Where did you get your undergraduate degree, and what was your major? Do you have an MS? 

I got my bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Dalian University of Technology. Before coming to Northwestern, I received my master's in environmental engineering from Duke University.  

What attracted you to pursue a Ph.D. in your specialty area?

I chose to pursue a Ph.D. because it is a great chance for you to demonstrate your hypothesis, to broaden the boundary of knowledge, and to see some unexplored aspects or processes in the world. I am interested in environmental engineering because it requires interdisciplinary sciences and technologies to solve problems. Many striking advances from physics, chemistry, and biology are made every day, and I am excited to apply them to answer environmental questions. 

How do you explain your thesis research to a non-scientist?

Organic matter in soil is an important stock of terrestrial carbon. It can be a source of atmospheric carbon dioxide due to microbial respiration or a sink of those greenhouse gases due to its long-term preservation. My research is looking at how different biomolecules in organic matter can be protected by soil minerals against microbial assimilation, thus limiting the carbon dioxide efflux from soil organic matter. This knowledge will deepen our understanding toward the global carbon cycle and provide guidance for agricultural practices and land management to mitigate the release of carbon dioxide from soil environments.  

What attracted you to NU?

I liked this place on my first campus visit in the winter of 2020. The lovely people and beautiful lakeview really impressed me. After joining Northwestern as graduate student, I found more aspects that are attractive such as the supportive environment and convenient research platforms.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your graduate school experience?

My first year was quite difficult due to pandemic. I was taking classes remotely in China, which is 13 hours ahead of Chicago. Therefore, all classes, exams, and presentations were scheduled at midnight in my time zone. I went to bed at 8 or 9 am and woke up in the evening and had limited time to bathe in the sunshine, especially in the winter. But I received a lot of support from my family, friends, professors, and lab members to help me go through the “dark year,” and I really cherish my current in-person time with everyone! 

Can you tell us about your experience being mentored or mentoring others?

Mentoring others is a great opportunity to improve yourself. I was the mentor of an undergraduate in our lab to instruct some basic molecular simulations. I found it can be challenging to explain some details such as model assumption or mathematical equation. That is because I thought I got it, but in fact it was not fully digested. Then I realized passing knowledge or skills to other people requires deeper understanding in a more detailed way. I am grateful that mentoring helps me find those unrealized knowledge gaps. Also, I was the teaching assistant for the class of Chemical Processes in Aquatic Systems in the fall of my third and fourth year. Even though I almost learned the class content three times, some new understandings emerged every time. The discussion with the students inspired me to think about the chemistry process from different viewpoints. I benefited a lot from mentoring and learned a lot from my students! 

What are your interests or hobbies outside of your research?

Starting from my second year, I went to the gym regularly to do some workouts. I can feel my life has become more well-organized since then, and I have made many good friends in the gym. Please let me know if you want to join us!