Interview with Patricia Yang

The two-time Ig Nobel Prize winner explains the potential applications of her research on wombats’ cubed poo and why animal waste is the ‘best study topic’

November 14, 2019
Patricia Yang

Patricia Yang is a postdoctoral fellow in mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who studies fluids inside animals, specifically faeces, urine and blood. In September, she was awarded her second Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for her research on how wombats produce cubed poo. She previously shared the 2015 prize for confirming that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Austin, Texas in 1987. My mother was pregnant while defending her doctoral thesis. We moved to Taiwan when I was three years old.

How has this shaped who you are?
My mother, as a biologist and a single mother, shaped me in two ways. She built my values on the environment and animals. I am the only child in the family. When I was little, I grew up in the company of pets, such as fish, turtles, birds and hamsters. She intentionally (and successfully) cultivated me to appreciate the environment and the creatures around me. My mother also showed me how to pursue your passion and enjoy family life in academia – she had long working hours, but she never missed any of my school events.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was stubborn, ambitious, but confused about what to do in the future. During studying, I aimed to fully understand the topics in class. I did everything – form a study group, speak with professors during office hours, and find seniors who knew the topic. At the same time, I was eager to know more about other disciplines. As students could take courses from any departments without permission, I took courses from physics, mathematics, Chinese literature and landscape architecture. I really appreciated that I could be exposed to different types of knowledge.

Dealing with animals’ faecal waste does not sound very pleasant. Have there been situations when you regretted your research topic?
The smell of animals’ faecal waste is terrible. We had to open the gut of a wombat in a fume hood to avoid the smell, but I never regret my research topic. In some ways, animals’ faecal waste is the best study topic. Before I started the research on animal waste, my family never tried to understand what I did in college. Now they are interested and eager to know more. Animal waste is such a friendly research topic where everyone wants to share their experience. Scientific research can be isolated sometimes but this topic connects me to close friends outside the scientific community.

The Ig Nobel Prizes are sometimes dismissed as “silly science”. As a two-time winner, with Georgia Tech professor David Hu, do you mind this characterisation?
People underestimate the power of “silliness” and the Ig Nobel Prizes take advantage of that. The Ig Nobels make people think. People share the news among friends, talk about it and (eventually) think about it. 

Animal waste has become one of your specialist subjects. Is society aware enough of its importance?
Scientists study human and animal waste for [reasons related to] the quality of drinking water, the health of the gastrointestinal tract and the spreading of diseases. The study of animal waste is important for public and human health. But society puts the attention on animal waste in a very different way. We teach children that poo/faecal waste is an impolite term. We call it a "number one or two", instead of "peeing or pooping", in daily life. Society is definitely aware of the importance [of the issue], but we just avoid talking about it.

Can you envisage a practical application for your wombat poo research?
The wombat poo research could shed light on early screening for colon cancer. For patients with colon cancer or abnormality in the gastrointestinal tract, the intestine increases [in] thickness locally and thus might shape the faeces with corners. The mechanism is similar to how wombats shape the faeces by the intestine, so I am looking for colon surgeons who are interested in collaboration.

What do you do for fun?
I love observing animals. During weekends, I go to Zoo Atlanta and visit so frequently that I know the animals by their names. I also like Georgia Aquarium – watching fish swimming is like a movie in action. I also love seeing animals on campus: police horses for the week of campus safety, service dogs for the week of mental health and camels for the week of Israel fest. I have also seen owls and hawks resting in the trees right next to my office on campus.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
I am a strong believer in environmental justice. If we start rescuing the environment, we are saving the home for all animals. In daily life, I recycle and reduce the usage of disposable items by bringing my own eating utensils and water bottle to work. 

Which animal do you like most – scientifically speaking – and why?
Flying fish can transit from swimming underwater to flying through the air smoothly, even though that water is a thousand times denser than air. I had a chance to study flying fish for a summer in Taiwan and saw how juvenile flying fish, about 1cm long, can leap out of water and glide for a metre. Their mobility in these two media is unique in the animal kingdom.

Jack Grove


Hetan Shah has been announced as the new chief executive of the British Academy. He is currently the executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, which he has led for eight years, and will take up the position in February 2020. He is also a visiting professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London. Mr Shah said: “We are living through a period of social, environmental and technological change. The humanities and social sciences are a key way in which we can understand ourselves as a changing society. So I'm over the moon about being appointed to lead the British Academy.”

Trevor Hoey has joined Brunel University London in the new role of vice-provost (international and academic partnerships). Professor Hoey, a river geomorphologist who was previously dean of the University of Glasgow Singapore, will lead Brunel’s strategy to further advance its international profile, reporting to provost Rebecca Lingwood. “With such wide-ranging experience of developing effective partnerships in regions as diverse as China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil, Professor Hoey is an incredible asset to Brunel,” Professor Lingwood said.

Mark Kamimura-Jimenez has been named associate vice-chancellor for student affairs and dean of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Washington University in St Louis. Dr Kamimura-Jimenez, currently assistant vice-chancellor of student affairs at Texas Christian University, will join the university in January.

Rémi Zallot will join Swansea University Medical School as the recipient of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship. Dr Zallot, who has previously studied at the University of Illinois’ Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology and the University of Florida, will be hosted by the Medical School’s Centre for Cytochrome P450 Biodiversity for the next two years.

Juanita Cox has been appointed a research fellow on the project, “Nationality, Identity and Belonging: An oral history of the ‘Windrush Generation’ and their relationship to the British State, 1948–2018”, at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Dr Cox is a former associate fellow of the Caribbean Studies Centre at London Metropolitan University.

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