There are few people as humble in the face of great success as University of Tennessee’s researcher and professor Tong “Toni” Wang. When told that this piece would focus on her journey as a researcher, she laughed and couldn’t seem to understand why the focus wouldn’t be the research itself. But as we talked about Wang’s journey, and her extensive work in food science, lipids, and eggs, it became apparent why the entire industry should be extremely interested in her work, and very thankful for her journey.
Wang’s story began in China where she graduated from Shenyang Pharmaceutical University with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy, followed by a master’s degree in pharmaceutics. Wang then pursued her interests in science and research at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln where she discovered a new passion, food science. Wang worked on a project studying whether the shiitake mushroom’s supposed polysaccharide immune-enhancing function was scientifically valid. The project was the perfect match for Wang. The professor in charge needed someone with knowledge on extracting parts of a mushroom, and Wang’s background in pharmacy prepared her specifically for that type of work. Until this time, Wang had never considered Food Science as a future, but she loved it!
Life took Wang to Arkansas, where she obtained a master’s degree in Food Science. Wang’s family then moved to Iowa, and Wang received her Ph.D. at Iowa State University in Food Science with an emphasis in lipid chemistry. Wang continued her grace and humor as an innovative researcher at Iowa State as a Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition, until she moved to the University of Tennessee in April of 2019.
Wang explained, “I have always been most comfortable in an academic setting because my parents were both professors in China, at the university my husband graduated from. That’s how we got to know each other!” Wang knew she wanted to work at a university, and Iowa State has been a great opportunity to do just that.
Her journey specific to eggs and laying hens is a bit more complicated, but it is one that illustrates her exceptional creativity and love for science. Always a big supporter of value-added applications, Wang has worked to enhance the natural properties of an egg, like adding vitamin D to laying hen feed in order to study its transfer to yolk, and add to the body of knowledge on the benefits of choline, but she is also working to create methods of extracting specific egg components in a way that does not render the remaining parts of the egg useless or damaged. The many versatile components in eggs make them great subjects for her value-added mindset, and uses for extracted components has nearly endless potential for the industry.
Another recent endeavor of Wang’s has been working on the mitigation of airborne bacteria generations from cage-free layer litter by spraying acidic electrolyzed water. The study is focused on the capability of water to work as a disinfectant after going through a setup that acidifies and electrolyzes the water, giving it the power to kill bacteria. When asked why this hasn’t hit the mainstream market, her response was that the electrolyzed water may not be very stable, thus you must set up the system right in your own building and use the water as it comes out. However, the correct system could mean endless possibilities for the egg industry and beyond. Wang’s chemistry expertise was contributed to the project to determine how much sanitizing component is needed in the electrolyzed water to successfully treat the bacteria.
With all of the different specialties and projects that Wang has been a part of, you may be wondering what links them all together. The common tie is creativity. “It’s an applied science,” said Wang. “It doesn’t matter what the topic is; if it’s about using science to creatively solve practical problems, I will love it.”
Wang says that there have been important mentors in her life journey. Especially impactful was the late Iowa State University Professor Earl Hammond, the professor who exposed Wang to lipid chemistry when he recruited her for her Ph.D. “Earl taught me…to do good science and be the person I am today,” Wang reminisced. “I probably owe the scientist I am today to him.” While Dr. Hammond has passed, his lessons will live on in many more students, through Wang.
Perhaps the mentor Wang is today can also be attributed to Hammond. She clearly has a passion for mentoring students wanting to make a career of research; so much so that a student was by her side for her interview to help add their input into the research discussions. “The number one trait you must have to be a good mentor is you have to care,” says Wang. “You must truly see what others want, and help them reach their goals. Care about them, understand them, communicate.”
While the traits of mentoring remain the same, research has changed since the time she was a student. “There has been a shift towards a holistic approach to research,” she said. Clarifying what that means, Wang explained that today’s research requires every single effect be reported, not only the ones you want to see. One cannot simply do a study in which they really hone in on a single aspect and not look at broader effects.
“Today a whole team is needed,” stated Wang. Teams must have experts on the experiment topic, as well as on economics, environment, sustainability, and more. This makes the skills of teamwork and communication as important as the technical research skills. Wang feels that in order to be successful in today’s research world, one has to be able to get along with others. “You need to be able to work together and bring out the best in each other,” Wang stated. “If you can work together, synergy in the group will make for the very best work and results.”
“Whether doing everything in a holistic fashion is effective or not as to the depth of science, it is hard to generalize,” said Wang, but she predicts that more collaboration and communication are in store. She hopes that families and schools will not forget to teach the important skills needed to be a diligent and resilient individual.
The only true challenge Wang feels she has faced is never having enough time to do everything. Her dedication to her work is apparent, but it is not the awards that make her feel successful. It is the work itself, and knowing that she is doing what she loves. “I’ve published many papers and won awards; I am recognized by colleagues, and I should be proud of that,” says Wang. “But I’m just doing what I love to do; I’m satisfied with my job, and I am happy. The process is exciting. Watching a student graduate and go off to a good job, that is satisfying too.”
Wang wears many hats; teacher, researcher, volunteer in service, journal editor, member of multiple committees, and serves as the director of graduate education for food science and technology at Iowa State. But of all of these hats, being a researcher and being able to advise students is most satisfying to her.
The important message Wang would like everyone to know is that whatever we need to do in society must be science-based. “We must gain the understanding that science is the only way to really know if we are making right decision” states Wang. “I am always looking to make a practical impact - to use science to really change things.” Research is about much more than a simple task to Wang; she is using her dedication to science to change the world for the better.
(Updated May 2019 to reflect Wang's move to University of Tennessee from Iowa State University.)
By Michelle Putze