Young, Lily

Provost - Rutgers University-New Brunswick
Areas of Interest: 
Microbial physiology and biochemistry, environmental microbiology, environmental biotechnology, geomicrobiology.
My Story: 
The very first time that my interest in science was raised, was in high school. I had a nice biology teacher, Mister Roe, who encouraged his students to participate in microbiology experiments at home; I cooked up Petri plates in my mother's pressure cooker and performed some very simple experiments. When I did these things on my own, I realized that science was something fun to engage in.
Motto: If you don't try, you won't know
Although I always preferred science to the humanities in high school, I did not actually plan to be a scientist. I fell into microbiology when I went to Cornell University, which has a very strong, but small program in this field. When I graduated, I decided to look for a job as a technician, because I wanted to get some research experience without earning a degree. Someone at Cornell suggested I contact professor Ralph Mitchell, who was a Cornell graduate who worked on research in environmental biology at Harvard at the time.

Professor Mitchell contacted me during the summer through a ship to shore phone call, while I was taking a research course off the coast of New Hampshire. Rather than a position as a technician, he offered me a position as a graduate student. Although it was never a life long goal to obtain a PhD degree, I decided to take the opportunity when it came my way, thinking: "I could always try, otherwise I'll go back to being a technician." So I hemmed and hawed, but finally agreed.

In graduate school at Harvard, my research was on microbial chemotaxis, where bacteria move towards substances they like and flee from harmful compounds. I again realized that I loved doing research. I liked being in charge of my own work, and it was up to me to decide how far I could take it. During that period I learned how to be a scientist.

Young, Lily Y.
Photo taken by Dennis Connors

After my PhD-project, I started teaching in the civil and environmental engineering department at Stanford. During this time I began my work on microorganisms in anaerobic or anoxic environments, which I still study today. I am interested in their role in biodegradation of difficult to degrade compounds. These microorganisms can perform oxidation and reduction reactions that manage the carbon and nitrogen cycle for the entire earth.

The beauty of microorganisms is that they can degrade chemicals that are harmful to us, like pesticides and benzene and xylene from gasoline. They just see the carbon in these compounds, and transform the molecules into food for themselves. In contrast to humans, bacteria are not dependent on oxygen as an electron acceptor for respiration, the can use all kinds of molecules, such as nitrate and sulfate. No other organisms can do that. There are many questions on the biochemical mechanisms operating in these anoxic environments, but it's clear that bacteria are incredibly important for the health and welfare of the ecosystem.

When I applied for my first faculty position, I just tried my hand at it. It was not a life long goal, and I realized I could get a job somewhere else if I didn't get that position. I always knew I could find something to do that I would like. This relaxed attitude prevented me from putting up artificial barriers for myself. There is no reason to not try academia or to take any other opportunity that comes your way. That's advice I would like to give to young female students, who are thinking of pursuing a career in science. Just try. If you don't try, you will never know.

My parents, who emigrated when I was a child, also contributed to my view on life. They were always very happy to see me progress in the educational arena, without demanding anything from me. My father had a very Confucian view on life, education and getting fed were the two most important things. My mother, who was a traditional homemaker, never asked me to settle down and get married.

As it turned out, I liked being in an academic environment. I realized over the years that I was good at articulating the complexities of science and put together a story about the work that I am doing. As a professor, I often have to make the case about my work.

I met my husband, Wise, thirty years ago at the Marine Biological Lab at Woods Hole in Massachusetts. I was using my professor's lab for electron microscopy and Wise was taking a course there. Because we both had the same last name, Young, we saw each other's mail in the mailroom and actually knew each other's name before we formally met.

In the eighties and nineties, we both worked as faculty at NYU Medical Center during which time we lived within walking distance from the university, with our two children. Although many people may be surprised, I believe New York City is a great place to raise children, because they have such a rich and exciting environment and they soon learn to be independent and self-sufficient. They learned to negotiate the buses and subways by the time they were twelve, which made them feel empowered.

Although I liked working in the biomedical field at NYU, my love for environmental microbiology brought me to Rutgers University in 1992. My husband was recruited in 2001 to Rutgers, where he works on the faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences as a neuroscientist on spinal cord injury. Eventually, we moved to New Jersey, but we still have a place in New York, and spend weekends there.

Here at Rutgers, I can engage in research that I am passionate about: the influence that bacteria have on the environment. Sometimes I hear other scientist talk about how they have never examined an organism, just its DNA, but they are missing out on so much. Although most of my work is in the lab, I would definitely advise researchers to find an opportunity to go into the field. Just go out into the wetlands, streams or bay areas, for instance at a marine biology lab like Woods Hole. If you look closely, you can see how the microorganisms affect the landscape by altering the colors, smells, flows and chemistry of the environment.

Transcribed from an interview with Mariette Bliekendaal.
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