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Student Feature: Phelan Yu

Written by: Zeke Benshirim


phelan yu, the scientific student, harvard


You’ve probably heard by now that climate change poses a massive threat to global food security. News stories from just the past few days warn of threats to staple crops like wheat and corn, or indispensable treats like coffee and chocolate. But how do we know how much trouble we’re really in, and what do we need to worry about most? Phelan Yu is working out the answers.

A sophomore at Harvard College, Yu has been working with Professor Peter Huybers, a climate scientist, to try to put solid numbers behind the warnings. Yu works with data sets generated by world-class research organizations, from NASA to NOAA, designing statistical analyses and testing his own explanatory models to figure out what the numbers are telling us about the future of crop production on a changing planet.

It can sometimes be tough work. Climate data are always noisy, and often imprecise. Yu sometimes has to rely on measurements taken from satellites tens of thousands of kilometers above the ground to guess whether a single field is growing crops or not. Fortunately, he’s had a lot of preparation.

In his freshman year at Harvard, Yu took a seminar class with Huybers on “Food, Climate, and Data,” going deep into the literature on the topic. When the class ended, he hadn’t had enough, so he signed up to join Huybers’s lab and help push the bounds of knowledge in this area even further.

Yu had been looking for an opportunity to continue doing science, because he’d already gained research experience in data analysis and applied math during high school. A middle school teacher, recognizing his motivation, had connected him with a team at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he worked on making a battery which could run on sugar.

Yu spent his high school sophomore and junior summers working at NJIT, near his “suburban-ish” New Jersey hometown. During his time there, he designed, built, and tested devices to harvest electricity directly from glucose. His team was working to take advantage of a protein called glucose oxidase, a powerful micromachine usually taken from a black mold fungus which can liberate electrons from sugar by harnessing the energy stored in the molecular osidic bonds. Remarkably, the protein can remain functional even when taken out of the cells where it’s made, making it ideal for this kind of biotechnology application.

Using carbon nanotubes to anchor and coordinate individual proteins, Yu built and tested new circuit designs to improve this futuristic bio-energy device. His work also addressed the challenges of finding the best fuel source, and improving the device’s durability—the technology has an unfortunate habit of dissolving if it’s ever exposed to water!

A big part of Yu’s work in this lab consisted of gathering and processing data on all kinds of parameters, to better calibrate and understand the device. This part of the work gave him a chance to learn the statistics and data analysis tools he now applies to global crop responses to climate conditions, and also got him hooked on the thrill of discovery.

Yu has a strong appreciation for doing research, and believes it can be a great component of any student’s education if they are considering a data-driven career. He says, “Research is a really interesting opportunity to get exposed to materials in STEM that you can’t fully appreciate until you get outside of class and start applying that material, and really start thinking critically about what you’re doing in class—whether you’re in college or high school.”

And as Yu sees it, research is not just an educational tool: it can be an important force in shaping a young scientist’s life. “Research gives you a sense of purpose as to why you’re pursuing what you’re doing,” he explains. “Why am I participating in STEM, why am I interested in this field, why am I taking these classes? It gives you a very concrete example of how going into a STEM field can really help solve interesting problems.”

Yu’s research experience has convinced him he wants to commit to science. He’s planning on going into experimental physics, a field where his data-wrangling and programming skills—he’s fluent in MatLab and C—will certainly be put to good use. He’s decided to major in physics at Harvard, where he finds time between long hours of solving problem set to indulge in his hobbies, such as playing violin in the Bach Society Orchestra.

When asked what advice he’d give to younger students interested in science, Yu doesn’t hesitate: “Don’t be afraid to pursue your interests. Really think about what you’re passionate about, and use that passion to drive your work.”

Although it probably wouldn’t pass the statistical scrutiny he demands in his everyday work, Yu’s own story provides one data point suggesting that this advice is a recipe for a sound start to solid scientific success.