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E-Splash November 2012 - Ya Zhang's Drinking Water Quest
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Illinois Section AWWA - E-Splash - November 2012

Ya Zhang's Drinking Water Quest
Greg Swanson, District #1 Trustee

ISAWWA student member Ya Zhang is a hardworking graduate student who is performing advanced scientific drinking water research at the University of Illinois. Ya recently presented her research findings relating to phenotypic and phylogenetic analyses of coliform bacteria at AWWA’s Water Quality Technology Conference in Toronto, Canada in November 2012. Her highly specialized research involves the use of DNA fingerprinting to specifically identify and classify coliform organisms. She employed this information to assess the accuracy of various coliform testing methods used to test drinking water throughout the United States. Public water supplies will ultimately benefit from her efforts to enhance coliform testing accuracy, since we rely on these tests to gauge the effectiveness of our treatment processes and the quality of water provided to our customers’ taps.

Ya has also been working to identify and possibly to track the sources of fecal pollution in water derived from Karst regions, which are prevalent throughout the Midwestern United States. The topography of these areas feature crevices, sinkholes, caves, springs and sinking streams. As a result of these features, the associated groundwater is vulnerable to fecal contamination. The goal of her research is to identify new approaches that will allow rapid and accurate identification of fecal contamination sources in such regions.

As I look beyond Ya’s recent research findings, I find her personal story to be quite interesting and compelling. Ya grew up in a suburb of Beijing and observed first-hand the impact rapid development and industrialization were having on the surrounding water resources. Inspired by these observations and her sincere desire to make the world a better place, Ya completed her undergraduate studies in Environmental Engineering at Tsinghua University. She then elected to pursue her focus on water environmental studies at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Campaign. This proved to be a wise choice on her part, as the University of Illinois’ engineering programs are considered to be among the best in world.

It was through the University of Illinois that Ya met Professor Wen-Tso Liu, who became her research advisor. Professor Liu is an accomplished educator and award winning researcher who holds multiple degrees from various universities and is involved in numerous professional associations. Ya’s interest in advanced water studies meshed perfectly with Professor Liu’s own extensive research background and interests. This alignment produced a fertile learning environment and Professor Liu reports that Ya has done exceptionally well academically during the past three years, maintaining 4.0 GPA. Perhaps, more importantly, he has observed that Ya possesses an open and curious mind and that she is a hard worker who willingly invests many hours in the laboratory to complete research tasks in a timely fashion.

Professor Liu is quite pleased that Ya has decided to continue her PhD research in the University of Illinois program. As he considers Ya’s past efforts and future goals, Professor Liu states, "It will be beneficial for the water industry to have such a young and bright professional to join the effort in protecting the water resource on the earth.”

Ya is quick to express her sincere appreciation of Professor Liu and others who have helped her along her path. She further notes that water utilities across the US responded to her request for coliform isolates or raw water samples and that without such cooperation her research would not have progressed smoothly. She comments that working with the AWWA community, she learned how to develop a "long-term win-win relationships” in which she could ask for help and make her own contributions in return by sharing the knowledge she has acquired through her own research. Ya seems to particularly relish the opportunity to give back to others.

When asked to comment on her AWWA experiences to-date, Ya responded "AWWA provides a wonderful platform for research, training, communication and having fun together.” She went on to offer some interesting insights contrasting her experiences at the WQTC in Toronto and WATERCON in Springfield. "I observed that WQTC has placed more emphases on basic and applied research, and WATERCON2012 has emphasized more on solving practical issues and problems related to the water treatment and process operation.” In summary, she shared the following thought, "I have enjoyed the experience, so far, as a young researcher in the water industry, and will strongly encourage young students in my program to participate.”

When Ya completes her doctorate studies, she would like to return to China and apply the knowledge and skill she has acquired towards solving the environmental water resource problems that initially set her on her educational quest. Given Ya’s accomplishments to-date, along with her ability to work with advanced scientific principles and technology, it is clear she will make great contributions as her career unfolds. Just as her coliform and Karst region research efforts have produced findings that will directly benefit US water supplies in the future, I believe her future professional endeavors abroad may yield benefits here in the US, as well.

It is easy to see that ISAWWA is truly fortunate to have an intelligent and active researcher like Ya as a member of our Association. There is common agreement that such young professionals are needed to meet the many scientific, technical and operational challenges confronting our drinking water supplies. As Ya discovered during her AWWA interactions to-date, collaboration and professional networking are one of the fundamental keys to success in the world of water.

Each of us should reach out to encourage, support and appreciate students and young professionals, like Ya, who are embracing these challenges and assuming important roles in meeting mankind’s ongoing need for safe drinking water in our ever-changing world.


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