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An introduction (added on 30 March 2008):

Not too long ago, I received an email enquiry from an American college student  [ACS] “I am … … in the process of completing an introductory earth science course. One of my course requirements is to interview a research scientist in the earth sciences and to produce a biography of that scientist as well as a synopsis of his or her research. I would greatly appreciate your responses to the following questions at your earliest convenience.” As always, I [YN] responded (with some edits here):

[ACS] What was your initial motivation to enter your field of expertise?

[YN] No much choice given the circumstances (see below). But, I was influenced by my mother to some extent plus the fact that I enjoy fieldwork, outdoors activities etc. Many of my classmates did not like geology back then in China for reasons given in my biography (see below). I enjoyed it ONLY because I believed I could do well if tried to enjoy it. I did, and became progressively more a creative and original Earth Scientist. I could have been a writer or businessman, and I think I could do either of these reasonably well also. In America, one can choose what one wants to do, but that was not the case ~ 30 years ago in China (it is more americanized today).

[ACS] What academic and/or professional preparation was required to lead to your present position?

[YN] I worked hard, perhaps more so than most other people around me. I strongly believe one can get smarter and more creative only if one works harder, thinks more and does more. Imagine those successful politicians/statesmen or businessmen, which one of them is lazy? None – they all work hard. Diligence = preparation for anything one wants to achieve.

[ACS] What do you enjoy the most about your work?

[YN] Research – looking at the global geologic maps, looking at the global geologic data, imagine (hypothesize) what is happening on local, regional and global scales – today and in earth’s history. And then, try to test these hypotheses. Thinking big, writing research papers … … I also enjoy teaching undergraduate subjects. Some students remarked “Yaoling’s enthusiasm makes me more enthusiastic”, which is probably true, but it is certainly true that you enjoy more teaching if students are enthusiastic. The best moments of teaching for me is when a student asks me a question to which I have no answer!  Why? Students are  thinking! What else can make you so proud of as a teacher when your students are enthusiastic, voracious to learn and enjoy thinking and questioning?

[ACS] What do you enjoy the least about your work?

[YN] Writing grant proposals, i.e., asking money for research. The success rate of grant proposals is getting worse, some people always get money for research, and others don’t. These days most employers evaluate the quality of scientists and their work by looking at how much money they have spent, not necessarily how much good work they have produced. There is no obvious correlation between grant money spent and good science produced. The world is getting more like this each day. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein are greatest scientists of all times, but their research was obviously “cheap”.

Without funding, I can do “cheap” science encouraged by the spirits of scientific giants like Newton and Einstein, and by the “philosophical” insights of Sir William Bragg “The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.”

[ACS] How difficult is the work you do?

[YN] I think “difficult” is a wrong word for any dedicated worker, including a scientist, but “challenge” is the right word. Challenge could mean tasks being time consuming and/or effort demanding, but I emphasize challenges against tradition, authority and bandwagons!  The ability of challenging requires courage, and is important for new discoveries and new understanding, but you have to be prepared to face real “difficulties” as I have observed: you may become unpopular, your work may be chosen not cited even though it may be very relevant, you may never receive your deserved recognition, and you may never receive minimum amount of money to pay basic research expenses. The reality, not the work you do, is “difficult”. Quoted below is what I wrote to one of my highly respected scientists in a recent email, which reflects the reality that I am experiencing, and which may apply to many dedicated scientists also: “To my surprise in the past and not anymore is that fact that I seem to have made many “enemies” (more than rivals) without really understanding why. Some consider me to be a trouble maker who stirs the community and always disagrees with others. However, what many people did not understand is the fact that I have many papers to write, but given the time I have, I choose not to write papers to confirm/agree with previous work (no new contributions as far as I see), but to focus on partly, largely or entirely new ideas and new ways of thinking/interpretations. Enthusiasm, excitement, encouragement, disappointment and frustration altogether make up my daily life as a dedicated scientist. Things become more and more “difficult” when I made discoveries and tried to express the excitements.”   BUT, such “difficulties” have never stopped me from expressing myself and never will!  I choose not to agree with tradition and authorities unless they are supported by observations and are correct to our present knowledge.

After all, if we consider ourselves to be genuine scientists, we must want to be great scientific spirits as described by Albert Einstein “Great spirits have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.

[ACS] Please briefly describe the nature of your scientific research.

[YN] Using petrology and geochemistry to understand how the Earth works. You will find all sorts of things on my mind about this from my webpage.

[ACS] What impact do you perceive your research has on society?

[YN] Basic research differs from applied research and differs from technology; we will see the impact when time comes.

A journey towards a geologist and Earth Science Researcher:

I was born in 1959 on the Loess Plateau of Northwest China in a politically and financially disadvantaged yet reasonably educated family. I started my primary school education at age under six in August 1965. I was one of the youngest pupils in the class of ~ 40, but was placed at the very top in Mathematics and Chinese language. My other subjects like singing, paper-cutting craft, and physical education were barely passing. I received school-wide awards for The Best Pupil of the Grade because I was doing well for the two key subjects. I continued doing well with awards for three semesters until the end of 1966, about six months after the beginning of the “Great Cultural Revolution“. Like kids of many disadvantaged families in China, I suddenly became a no-school boy at age of 7. Being voracious to read, yet there was little available to read, I memorized perhaps almost the entire “Red Treasure Book” – quotations from Chairman Mao. Many passages were incomprehensible, but I could read aloud. For passages that I could understand, I found Mao’s language was beautiful – full of thought and philosophy with exciting/inspiring powers. Although some of his philosophical views remain valid, I realized gradually that Mao’s ideology was inconsistent with what I saw and experienced. Nevertheless, the “Red Treasure Book” was my language teacher.

Being able to read, curious about natural happenings, and admiring those kids with school bags on their shoulders, I wanted to learn badly. I was lucky to find materials and surprised that I could be self-taught. That first happened when I was about 12 in 1971. I discovered some old and musty textbooks in a mysterious and “antique” box wrapped with spider-webs in an obsolete corner room, which was remnant of a dismantled house in my family’s old yard. Those textbooks were old primary and high school textbooks translated from Russian to Chinese. Math and Physics books were great – full of examples with numerous problems and answers! It was not hard at all to catch up my Math from grade 2 level to up to junior high school level in only a few months! Physics took me longer, but Newton’s 3 laws and Archimedean principles were fascinating. Chemistry was bit abstract, but I got most of it (not organic chemistry though). Perhaps, I should feel grateful for having no school to go because I learnt more than kids in schools those days. A big surprise came in January 1973. When Deng Xiaoping was empowered as the Deputy Prime Minister of China in 1972, education in China suddenly became one of the top priorities, and young kids of all backgrounds were allowed to go to school. One of the toughest things Deng did was to enforce nation-wide entrance exams at all levels. I was old enough to be in senior high schools, so I did exams for that level. It was really a great feeling to be Number 1 among several thousands of examinees in the County of LintaoGansu Province, where I was born and grew up. I entered the Senior high School in March 1973. The first semester was wonderful with an encouraging atmosphere “study, study and study” because “knowledge is power” A sudden political swing in the summer of 1973 changed everything back. I was out of school again at the beginning of 1974. This was the end of my two-and-half year school education before I entered the University in 1978.

It was Deng Xiaoping again who stressed the strategic importance of education when he resumed power after the “Great Cultural Revolution” ended in 1976. Nation-wide college entrance exams took place throughout the country in November-December 1977. In Gansu, the exams were held on December 2nd and 3rd. It was a very cold winter, too cold to hold pens properly. A tiny heating stove in the middle of a giant class room of ~ 200 examinees was no better than without one. The exam results came out in January 1978 as an even bigger surprise! Of > 7000 examinees in Lintao County, only 32 passed minimum entrance requirement, and 3 were from my family plus a cousin. To choose a subject of study in college was not easy. I loved math and physics, but I also liked outdoor activities and nature and doing fieldwork. Worried about being left out, considering the relaxed entrance score requirements for agriculture and geology, I choose the latter two. Geology was not thought as a good subject and geology students were considered intellectually inferior by math, physics and chemistry students in China. It is probably still true today at least in certain areas of the country. I did not care about that because I liked geology already influenced by my mother. She used to be a geologist doing petrography in Qinghai Bureau of Industry before I was born, and told me stories about minerals and rocks. Also, I badly wanted to seize the life-time opportunity for education. In late February of 1978, I received the offer of studying Geology at Lanzhou University. I was delighted, but my true feeling was beyond description as this would change my future!

In those previous years, my primary “job” was not study, but work – working in harsh countryside. Growing wheat, barleys, corns, beans, and peas was not my favourite, but I was good at. Feeding pigs was fun for only a few days, but I had to do that for over 10 years. Building river dams, maintaining motorways, and playing with explosives in quarries were not I would choose, but I did. Making building bricks from mud-playing to sun dry, and to coal-firing in a kiln was fun, but removing and refilling bricks in the kiln was not – very hot and burning; I had hand burns many more times than I could remember. Growing vegetables and fruit trees was what I liked the best. In particular, pruning and grafting apple and pear trees were most enjoyable – I had 9 different types of apples growing in a single tree – fun and creative. All these experiences have little to do with geology, but I believe they gave me loads of common sense, skills of insight into problems and creative ways of scientific thinking later in my Earth Science research.

My college years and first Academic job – Lanzhou University, China (03/1978 – 12/1985):

I started my undergraduate study in March 1978 at Lanzhou University, majoring in Geology and Mineral Resources. Lanzhou University was of one of the top universities in China back then, but Geology Department was not considered as good for many reasons. My important discovery in the first week of my university life was that every one of my fellow students, in particular those who grew up in big cities, was way better and more knowledgeable than myself. Many of them had previously learnt English in their high schools, but I had to start from a, b, c … The pressure on me was huge! I promised myself to cherish such a fate-deciding opportunity and to succeed in my university work! I was determined to catch up! I studied extremely hard on every subject the first semester (Math, Physics, Chemistry, English and a few others), and got very good marks in the end, but I also gained the nickname of “perpetual machine“. The rest three years and half were quite easy for me! I read broadly way beyond class work, yet obtained top marks for all subjects, and kept the title (and awards) of Excellent Student of the Year for three consecutive years. I graduated with a BSc degree in 1982, and was hired immediately by Lanzhou University as an Assistant Lecturer (January 1982-December 1985). I lectured Optical Mineralogy and Ore deposits, led field trips to several places of Northwest China, did mapping and visited many ore deposits in many parts of China. I published my first two papers in 1984 both in Chinese, one on the genesis of a Pb-Zn deposit, and the other a simple computer program for calculating structural orientations and true thickness of strata based on field measurements [1,2]. This was a big encouragement as none of the papers was rejected, but accepted with minor revision, which was very rare those days in China for a young man having no connections of any kind with journal editors.

The University of Alabama, USA (01/1986-12/1987):

While being an Assistant Lecturer at Lanzhou University, I was dreaming of postgraduate study in America. It was just a dream because I did not have money myself and the Government would not support me. My ambition kept me struggling. I sent dozens of letters to American universities expressing my enthusiasm and interest in postgraduate studies and asking for financial support. Luckily, I was admitted in January 1986 to the MS program at The University of Alabama with financial support to study VHMS deposits in the Southern Appalachian with Mike Lesher (now Professor at Laurentian University, Canada). I enjoyed living in Tuscaloosa, a small town where the University of Alabama main campus is. For the first few months, I didn’t really know what Tuscaloosa looked like but confined myself in classrooms, laboratories, and an office cabinet in the basement of Smith Hall. I worked more than 15 hours a day and 7 days a week – learning to do research of “American style” and struggling with the heavy course work, which to me was an intense English training process. The summer in Tuscaloosa could be extremely hot, but within miles are rivers, lakes and creeks for fishing, swimming, boating, picnicking, and even gold panning. Mike Lesher was a patient and helpful advisor. Rona DonahoeNathan GreenHarold Stowell and many others were nice professors with ready help to offer as always. I completed my thesis work by December 1987, defended the thesis on January 12th, 1988, and graduated with an MS degree in August 1988. Part of my MS thesis was published later in 1991  [8].

Northwestern University, USA (01/1988-12/1988):

Before I completed my MS research in Alabama, I was already offered PhD studentships by several US Universities, but I actually had only two choices (Penn State and Northwestern both for experimental petrology) as I had to start in January 1988 because of the visa matter. I chose Northwestern University in Evanston because of the big name of Bernie Wood (now at Oxford University) and his little red-covered book <<Thermodynamics for Geologists>>.  I did not succeed in doing many high P-T piston-cylinder experiments during my stay at Northwestern, but I enjoyed very much the stimulating academic environment in Locy Hall. I was particularly fascinated byRodey Batiza‘s seafloor petrology research – ridges, seamounts, and seafloor tectonics – all exciting! Rodey took a position in Hawaii, and I went along, starting in January 1989 my seafloor petrology research under Rodey’s supervision at the University of Hawaii.

University of Hawaii, USA (01/1989-09/1992):

I enjoyed in Hawaii “not because the weather is excellent, not because the beach is nearby, but because of excellent people and stimulating academic environment” (quoted from my PhD Thesis). Rodey is an excellent scientist and a wonderful supervisor. He is also a cool philosopher, a man with kind heart, and an older brother. Numerous heated discussions between us, which could not be avoided, consolidated our long-term friendship! Rodey is now a Program Manager at US NSF, Washington DC. There are too many to mention, but John SintonJohn MahoneyJill KarstenDick HeyMike Garcia and others were always available to help and give me encouragement. In Hawaii, a PhD candidate was required of a major foreign Language. Members of my committee considered I was lucky as my native Chinese would be OK. However, my ambition did not allow me to relax a bit, but persuaded myself to insist on learning French – a language I considered important in the field of Marine Geology and Geophysics, in which I was to pursue my research career. Having taken the French Scientific Reading class for only two months, I took the once-a-year exam in April 1989. It was to translate a paper on Mt. Etna volcano from French into English. It was just too easy! The feeling was great as I easily passed the exam just in two months of learning the language, but I regretted deeply that I did not continue. I passed my PhD comprehensive exams easily – both written (Thermodynamics only) and oral (3-4 hours). But improvements were noted: (1) Living in Hawaii and getting a PhD from Hawaii, I should be a little bit more familiar with volcanoes on the island of Oahu; (2) while it was considered wonderful to know the names of so many people and their significant contributions to Earth Sciences, I should also know the name of our current Dean of SOEST – Barry Raleigh! I finished my PhD work quickly in 3 years. It was a happy and productive period – our two kids were born in Hawaii while I was working very hard to manage my PhD thesis as well as to have 6 first- and co-authored papers written and published. Among these papers, the very first comprehensive Kd-based model calculating compositions of decompression-induced primary mantle melts [9] in particular is a lasting contribution in its concept and process understanding. The recognition for the first time that ridge segment scale MORB chemical trends differ between slow and fast ridges [12] emphasizes the fundamental importance of plate spreading rate control on ocean ridge processes.

Knowing to defend my PhD dissertation in April 1992, I started applying for postdoc positions by the end of 1991. While sailing on JOIDES RESOLUTION during ODP Leg 142 drilling the East Pacific Rise axis at 9°30’N (January-March, 1992), I received faxes in one week from Scripps (to work with Pat CastilloJim Natland and others), Lamont and Woods Hole (to work with Henry Dick and others) all offering me their prestigious institutional postdoctoral fellowships. I had to make a decision in a few days, and I chose to go to Lamont working with Charlie Langmuir in September 1992, but Pat CastilloHenry Dick and Jim Natland have since been valued friends whose advice, encouragements and help have been important for my career developments. ODP Leg 142 was special to me. I practiced a lot of my otherwise rusted Ping-Pong skill, but importantly I met famous scientists like Kurt Bostrom (retired from the University of Stockholm), Prem Sharma (retired from University of Copenhagen), Roger Hékinian (retired from IFREMER) and others, and also enthusiastic young scientists like Jamie Allan (now a Program Manager at US NSF) and Wolfgang Bach (Professor at Bremen University in Germany). Roger Hékinian’s seagoing experience and his never-failed many cruises impressed me, but it is Roger’s encouragement and unselfish spirit that fostered our productive research collaboration since then. This had led to 6 important publications. These papers offer insights into many aspects of seafloor petrology, geochemistry and mantle processes. In particular, “Spreading rate dependence of the extent of mantle melting beneath ocean ridges” [22] and “Ridge suction drives plume-ridge interactions [53] are illuminating.

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, USA (09/1992-07/1993):

My postdoctoral period (September 1992-August 1993) at Lamont was not productive, mostly because it was too short! But I ensured, with my greatest effort, the success of Charlie Langmuir’s famous FAZAR sampling cruise from Azores Platform down south to the Hayes transform along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in September-October 1992. I also collected a lot data on these samples, but did not have the opportunity to write on these samples. Nevertheless, the paper on abyssal peridotites published later [24] was a nice crystallization of the postdoctoral work initiated at Lamont, which provided some important new perspectives on the petrogenesis of abyssal peridotites and ocean crust formation at ocean ridges. Charlie and I disagreed on some scientific issues, but his research philosophy had hugely influenced me.

The University of Queensland, Australia (07/1993-01/2001):

My employment at The University of Queensland (UQ) has an interesting history. The worst thing one could have on a sampling cruise at sea is a big storm. Even worse than that was to have three big storms in ~ 10 days. I had all these during the FAZAR cruise, and survived the storms with seasickness and with successful sampling. The celebration of the survival and success was coincident with my 33rd birthday, October 15th, with an unexpected birthday present – an email from Ken Collerson inviting me to have an interview in Queensland on November 1st, 1992 for a job I applied for. The selection committee decided to offer the Economic Geologist post to another candidate who was an Economic Geologist, but assured me to create a position for me that did not exist. They did, and I accepted as a tenure track Lecturer.  

I joined UQ in July 1993, lectured on Mineralogy, Optical Mineralogy, Petrology, Geochemistry, Geodynamics and Crustal Evolution, components of Marine Geology and other subjects. Having been an effective teacher with prolific publications in prestigious international journals and great success in securing external research funds, I was tenured and promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1997. During my 7 and half year tenure in Queensland, I published 26 papers and several reports [14-40]. One of the important achievements I made in Queensland was to establish the ICP-MS facility, and produced the first comprehensive and highest quality trace element data sets on seafloor basalts, gabbros and abyssal peridotites. I also oversaw the daily operation of the ultra-clean Geochemical Laboratory with Ken Collerson as well as teaching various courses and supervising Honours and PhD students. My scientific development in Queensland was influenced by my respected friends: Tony Ewart (retired) and late Shen-su Sun were wonderful friends and great mentors! David Green was very busy as a scientist and as the Director of Research School of Earth Sciences at the ANU, but his support and encouragement was always remembered, especially during a difficult time I once experienced in Queensland. Scientific exchanges with Dave GreenBill Griffin and Sue O’Reilly were extremely helpful. Working days and nights in the lab or writing computer codes in the office or at home neglected the family a bit, but what remains are fun memories in Australia.

Cardiff University as a NERC Senior Research Fellow, UK (01/2001-01/2003):

Given the difficulties in getting academic jobs these days, I should have been satisfied with my tenured post in Queensland, but my ambition drove me for new and better research opportunities. Obviously, my research work in the past had drawn attention of some prominent scientists in our field, including Mike O’HaraMike acted “as a referee on one of his [my] extremely insightful publications” [20]. He enjoyed reading my manuscript and provided ever so detailed constructive comments printed in 10-plus pages using 10-point font size with single space. That was a HUGE encouragement from a famous scientist! Mike invited me in 1999 to join him in Cardiff University through an extreme competition for a Senior Research Fellowship of the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) of the UK. I was successful and was highly honoured indeed. I joined Cardiff University in January 2001. Some considered me to be brave to give up a tenured post in Queensland, and many thought I must be crazy, at least very strange, to move from the sunny subtropics of a coastal city to the dark, windy, cloudy and wet Southeast Wales. But I enjoyed my Cardiff years and enjoyed collaborating with Mike on several important papers [48,49,52,90,117,127] that continues to this day.

University of Houston, USA (01/2003-12/2004):

I relinquished the prestigious NERC Senior Research Fellowship at Cardiff University and joined the University of Houston in January 2003. Such a move requires a great courage, and my courage comes from my belief that the US symbolizes a genuinely multicultural “melting pot” that welcomes individuals with merit from all ethnic backgrounds, and a just system that encourages and awards those willing to do their best. Before I was ready to reside permanently in Houston, the attractive Chair of Earth Sciences position available at Durham University brought me back to the UK. Among other modern attractions is the name of the founding Professor of Geology at Durham – Arthur Holmes (1924–1943), who was one of the few most creative and inventive geologists of the 20th century.  Holmes was the very first to attempt to date the age of the Earth by developing radiometric methods, and the very first to propose radioactivity as the energy source to drive mantle convection, which in turn, acts as the driving mechanism for continental drift, the founding concept of the modern plate tectonics.

Durham University, UK (since 12/2004):

I joined Durham University, UK in December 2004, continuing my always enjoyed teaching and deep thinking research “following the footsteps” of scientific giants like Arthur Holmes and Harry Hess by using petrology and geochemistry as a means to understanding how the Earth works at all scales on land, beneath oceans, and in the Earth’s deep interiors. By this time, I suddenly realized that my “Thinking Big” research philosophy can be summarized as “Pattern recognition on a global scale” as reflected in my publications, which apparently has been the case from continental drift to seafloor spreading and to the unifying theory of the plate tectonics, plus many aspects of the mantle plume hypothesis. While I continue to study the petrogenesis of rocks from ocean basins, mantle geochemistry and chemical geodynamics, I have had research emphasis shift from seafloor to land, especially the geology in China as reflected by my 64 papers with students and Chinese collaborators since 2004. There are three major reasons for this shift:

[1] my appreciation that the geology in China concentrates world geological phenomena, making it convenient to study many aspects of the global tectonic processes, e.g., (a) the petrology and geochemistry of subduction-zone metamorphic rocks allow evaluating models of subduction-zone magmatism and mantle compositional heterogeneity; (b) a multitude of continental collision zones throughout continental China, especially those recorded in the Greater Tibetan Plateau allow developing models of super-continental amalgamation and continental crustal accretion; (c) the lithosphere thinning in eastern China since the Mesozoic allows further development of the plate tectonics theory in explaining processes in plate interiors; (d) The geochemical systematics of Mesozoic-Cenozoic volcanism in eastern China as a function of time offers new perspectives on the nature of the cratonic mantle lithosphere and its origin and evolution, etc.

[2] I can effectively contribute to China’s Earth Sciences education and research – a cause that I wanted ambitiously to do since my university graduation in 1982, but did not know how until I could genuinely offer some 20 years later when I received advanced education and training in the US, Australia and UK.

[3] Importantly, using the Chinese geology to address geological problems of global significance has helped me succeed in securing some research funding from Chinese sources to support basic research and training promising Chinese young geoscientists. I am in the process of convincing my promising UK youngster students to study Chinese Geology. I joined Durham in December 2004, and I really enjoy Durham Earth Sciences Department for teaching the highly enthusiastic and motivated undergraduate students – they enjoy my lectures on the petrology and geochemistry of igneous and metamorphic rocks as much as I do and work with them, plus a one-week vacation each January visiting the Troodos Ophiolite.

I have many original works on scientific problems of global significance to publish and I wish to have some quality time … … Perhaps, I can end for now this brief autobiography with this picture assembled in 2003 when I was in Houston (where H3 refers to Harry H. Hess):

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