Yixi Zheng, postdoctoral researcher, physical oceanography
University of East Anglia
This Chinese scientist now working in England -- and Antarctica -- didn't care about school until math and science linked up with the real world.
When Yixi started college she was studying meteorology — fluid dynamics at the atmosphere, as they related to weather events like typhoons. A friend said, ‘if you are good at physics, and if you want to, probably you can change your subject.” So Yixi, who’d been studying meteorology, changed her major to physical oceanography, which involved fluid dynamics in the ocean, and minored in meteorology. Looking back, she feels it gave her a broad background. I wondered, weren’t the two disciplines similar? Yixi agreed, but noted that the change of focus to physical oceanography shifted her attention to how the ocean is influenced by the atmosphere. Now large part of her research involves observing air-ocean interactions. Yixi thinks that we always need to try and learn different things before we really know what we are good at and what we love. “We will never ‘waste’ time on trying new things. Although sometimes we need to change our path, the experience we earn from the previous path is actually what make us special and make us stand out from other people who are at the same path now.”
Go to the UK?
Yixi liked what she was studying, so when the chance came to study in the United Kingdom, she wasn’t sure. People told her that the UK might not be fun, but she went anyway. “Before you see a country and feel its culture yourself, you never know whether it’s good for you. Always try to experience more when you have the chance. “
Fluid dynamics was great, but, Yixi recalls, her other grades weren’t so hot. “I wasn’t good in all the subjects. There were courses in which I did really badly. I was afraid I couldn’t get into a good university for my master’s degree or Ph.D. But in the UK she met Karen Heywood, who would be her supervisor, and found the support and inspiration she’d always looked for. “She said I was a really good student. Before that nobody did.” Yixi really hopes that she can support other students one day, as Karen Heywood did.
Looking back, Yixi finds that reading was the most important thing that shaped her mind when she was a kid, and is still shaping my mind now. As a kid growing up in a city with “bad sexism culture”, she feels books gave her a chance to know what people outside of my world were thinking, and it helped her to look at the world from a different viewpoint from what her family and teachers taught her.
Stuck in an Office
As a kid, Yixi expected little more than office work. “When I was in primary school I was mainly dreaming about being an “office lady.” All the education I got was ‘you need to be pretty, you need to be quiet, you need to be polite, you need to have a decent job.’ They didn’t mean hard-working, carrying boxes everywhere, touching seals. They couldn’t imagine any girl doing that!” Yixi’s yen for learning new things got her into a few unpleasant situations while she struggled to figure out who she was and what she was good at. During her undergraduate years she did a few internships with a big Fortune 500 companies. “I’m not a person who can stay in the office all the time,” she says now. “I prefer to go somewhere, to see and do real things.” So, though the internship was “nice,” she stayed only three months before realizing it wasn’t for her.
Working in the field wasn't perfect. “I’m probably just a bad sailor,” Yixi says with a sigh and a laugh. “I get terrible seasickness all the time.” One positive: she never gets land sick after a cruise, as other seagoers do. “I never really get my sea legs, so I don’t get land sick (some call it dock rock) either.” She intends to keep doing research at sea anyway. “I just love it. I love collecting data. As a scientist, normally I work in front of my laptop — the airport, my office, my home — and it’s easy to forget that the data is meaningful. “I need some motivation boosters, and those are the cruises.” But there’s something else she loves about shipboard life. “It’s the other people. Science isn’t something that you can do by yourself. It’s such a community thing You have to work together.”
Yixi hit a turning point in her life as a scientist the day she emerged from her ship cabin, where she’d been seasick, and went up to the bridge and saw her first iceberg. “All the ships come and go,” she says, “but the icebergs are still there.” Then her ship drew closer to the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf. “The ice shelves have huge cracks, and they are melting so badly. You can see all the melt water dripping down. That was quite amazing for me, to know that it’s not something that we read in the paper, or write in our papers — it’s something that’s really happening.” Has it changed the way she lives? “Well, our laboratory became vegetarian, because we realized that’s something we could do, because the need to change is urgent.”
Lack of Diversity
Yixi feels that the lack of diversity in geoscience is getting better but is still horrible now. “I rarely meet Asians in conferences and I’ve never met any Black polar researcher in my life, although I know some of their names. It’s something I really hope I can help change, along with gender bias. Sometimes I get together with other early career female researchers to talk about how we can support each other. It helps us compensate for the bias we’re facing.”