Next Generation: Tan Zou on nutrient management in food production

April 27, 2022

Advisor: Xin Zhang, Appalchian Laboratory

What is the focus of your research?
My research focuses on quantifying nutrient budgets (nutrient use, production, and loss) in food production and consumption systems, and identifying gaps in that nutrient management. Nutrient management works to identify and understand best management practices to achieve optimal nutrient use in crop yields, crop quality, and economic returns, while reducing the release of nutrients into the environment.

I also look at the potential drivers of nutrient use patterns, tracking nutrients entering and exiting the system. I recently finished a global-scale study quantifying cropland nutrient budgets and am now studying nutrient budgets and management of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

How will it make a difference?
Understanding nutrient budgets can help us identify nutrient management gaps in different regions and food production and consumption systems. Knowing these gaps and potential drivers can help us develop best management practices. Poor nutrient management can lead to nutrient waste, loss, and shortage, resulting in social and environmental problems such as environmental pollution and crop yield reduction.

What influenced your career path in science?
I was always attracted by books, seminars, and activities related to sustainability. Studying environmental science allowed me to enter a field where all the work I would do would be meaningful and make the world a better place for people to live in.

Why did you choose to study with your mentor at UMCES?
My advisor, Dr. Xin Zhang, was working in a field similar to what I was interested in—  sustainability and transdisciplinary research—and I love to study new things. I had very little knowledge of agriculture and economics before I came to study at UMCES and working with my advisor allowed me to learn about these new subjects in depth.

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
As an international student, I grew up in urban cities in China and did my master's study in California where earthquakes and mountain fires are cause for concern. I had never explored the East Coast of the United States, so it was very exciting for me to move to Maryland.

The Appalachian Laboratory is located in a quiet, mountainous, and small city. Even though it is very remote, I really enjoy nature and the half-hermit life here, with a big mountain view right outside of my window.

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment?
Humans' existence always pollutes the environment but what we can do is try to reduce the pollution we make. There are many things people can do to reduce pollution, but I think one easy thing to do is to not take everything for granted. Everything comes with a price and can contribute to pollution. Being mindful of items you buy and consume can help reduce pollution.

Do you have advice for kids in the next generation who are interested in STEM fields?
Science is just a tool. Ask a question first, then find a tool to answer it. It never hurts to have as many tools as possible.

What are your future plans?
I hope to graduate by the end of 2022, and  I'd like to find a job that allows me to do research to make the world more sustainable.