Researcher Q&A: Getting to Know Our Team

Researcher Q&A: Getting to Know Our Team

Heather Heggemeier
September 13, 2012


Yaoping Zhang is the senior scientist in the Experimental Fermentation Lab of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), where he studies microbes and the fermentation of biomass. He has been working in this role as part of the GLBRC for about a year and a half. In this Prezi presentation, Yaoping talks about his research, his family, and what he thinks aspiring scientists should know.


Click on the arrow to begin the presentation, or view it on the Prezi website. The interview is also captioned in text below.

View "Meet Yaoping Zhang" on Prezi


Q: Where were you before you came to the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center?

A: I attended the Chinese Agricultural University for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in microbiology. I did my postdoc in the department of biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist?

A: I have always felt a curiosity to learn more and understand the phenomena of biology.

Q: How were you introduced to fermentation as a field of study?

A: During my graduate research, I joined a lab at the Chinese Agricultural University, which had some of the best fermentation equipment in China at that time. I joined this lab because of my interest in bioenergy research, but I was especially happy to do so because fermentation is actually one of my favorite things to do.

Q: What is your role at the GLBRC?

A: I am the head scientist of the Experimental Fermentation Lab, which is a component of the GLBRC's Microbial Synthetic Biology Laboratory at UW-Madison.

The lab examines the performance of engineered microbes used to convert biomass into fuels, while looking for ways to improve their performance.

Other labs may look at different materials used to produce fuel, but our lab focuses on fermenting cellulosic biomass to produce ethanol. Our lab’s work is important because microbes can behave differently at different volumes. A microbe might ferment very well in a small flask, but poorly in a large fermenter. This complicates our work, because we work at small scales, but our ultimate goal is to find microbes that perform well at a large, industrial scale.

Our smallest fermenter holds 50mL, and our largest holds 15L. The size of fermenter chosen to be used for any given experiment is determined by the number of samples that we are going to need. If only a few samples need to be taken, the lab will use a small fermenter in order to conserve the materials.

Before the plant material arrives at our lab, research colleagues at Michigan State University (MSU) use heat, pressure and non-toxic ammonia during a pretreatment process called AFEXTM- short for ammonia fiber expansion - to blast open the plant cell walls and make the cellulose and hemicellulose inside easier to convert to simple sugars.

Using that AFEXTM treated corn stover, we make the hydrosylate with a mixture of enzymes. Hydrolysate is a sludgy mixture of partially digested plant material.

We place the filtered hydrolysate [pretreated biomass] into a fermenter, and then add yeast or E. coli [microbes], which begin digesting the hydrolysate and producing ethanol [biofuel].

We measure the amounts of all the initial components, as well as the duration of the experiment. We perform several tests to try and discover what could improve the speed and efficiency of the conversion of biomass to biofuel.

Tests include:

  • Measuring the cell growth and density of the microbes.
  • Measuring the amount of leftover sugar and comparing it to the amount of ethanol that is produced.
  • Using transcriptional profiling to create a protein expression profile.
  • Measuring the microbes’ metabolic processes.

Q: How do you start your day?

A: I enjoy talking with other researchers and my colleagues from nearby labs every morning. It’s energizing to hear from everybody about what’s going on. In the Microbial Synthetic Biology Laboratory and in the Experimental Fermentation Lab, I think we have developed a very good team of people.

I often start my day with a cup of green tea. About once a year, I visit China to see my brother and my sister and to give talks at my alma mater. I always have to bring back some fresh green tea.

Q: Tell me more about your family.

A: We have three children: two girls and one boy. The youngest one is a funny little guy. He's always running around and trying to keep up with his older sisters!

Q: What are your hobbies and interests?

A: If I have time, I like to go out and be active. I enjoy badminton. I spend a lot of time with my kids, usually playing outside.

Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring scientist?

A: I think the most important thing is to pursue your true interests. Learning about biology can take many years, and if you aren’t interested in what you’re doing, it would be easy to give up when it becomes difficult, which it is sure to do.

Students should find a place to do research that interests them. With research, you’ll be exposed to many new questions, and they will be like fun puzzles that you can try to understand.