In a sprawling and dense urban area where 94% of the residents have access to a vehicle and the economy is heavily dependent on oil, gas, and chemical processing companies, Lina Luo, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, is researching how air quality and climate is impacted by nitrogen released through agricultural emissions. Yes, agricultural emissions.
“I was working on my master’s research on understanding the source of air pollution in China — fine particulate matter in air — when I read some of Daniel Cohan’s writing. His work was very interesting to me, so I contacted him about joining his team as a Ph.D. student,” said Luo. “The Cohan group’s work in soil nitrogen emissions modeling is cutting edge! After three and half years in the group, I am still passionate about our air quality research with particular interests in agricultural emissions and finding ways to mitigate the impact of agricultural emissions on climate change.”
Basically, nitrogen is one of the essential nutrients for crop growth, and it is yet deficient in natural soil. Farmers can increase their crop yield by boosting their soil’s nitrogen with fertilizers like naturally deteriorating compost or synthetic nitrogen like ammonia which is created using atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen. However, the increasing use of fertilizer results in a significant loss of nitrogen into the environment. On average, only half of nitrogen added is lost into the environment. Scientists and engineers have been studying the effects of excess nitrogen leached into run-off water for years, but Cohan’s research team is more concerned about the leaking of nitrogen into the atmosphere. Fertilizer-intensive agriculture imposes various adverse impacts on air quality and climate as the leading contributor to air pollutants nitrogen oxides and ammonia, and a potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.
Luo’s focus is on the agricultural emissions of nitrogen and how they impact air quality and climate, as well mitigation strategies. Luo has developed an integrated environmental assessment framework of agricultural nitrogen emissions. This framework links an agroecosystem model with a reduced-form air quality health effects model and includes the social cost of greenhouse gases. Using this framework, Luo has analyzed the adverse impacts of agricultural nitrogen emissions, which indicates mitigation strategies for agricultural nitrogen emissions should jointly consider air quality and climate impacts.
She had already presented her research at several national conferences, including the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting (2020, 2021) and the Annual Community Modeling and Analysis System conference (19th, 20th). Her ability to explain complicated research topics in her manuscript was not hampered by having learned English as a second language.
She said, “But after listening to other presenters at the conference-- I re-evaluated my own level of oral communication. I knew it was critical to communicate research ideas clearly in English. How could I learn to speak like a native?”
In the fall of 2021, the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication team launched a pilot program to help international graduate students overcome their individual challenges with English oral communication. Luo was one of the first participants to sign up. She said she was excited with the opportunity to focus some of her time and effort into improving her pronunciation and pacing.
“As a graduate student, most of my time is spent in research, writing, and reading. Communication also involves reading the body language of others and being able to speak distinctly — skills I tried to work on informally with my peers, or during in-person team meetings,” said Luo.
Even before the pandemic pushed team meetings to Zoom and eliminated casual hallway conversations, Luo had recognized the difficulty of getting helpful critiques on her spoken English from faculty members and colleagues. Everyone she met at Rice was supportive when it came to helping her think through issues she discovered in her research; yet there were very few chances for her to inquire about her spoken English level.
“The Intensive Oral Communication Coaching program opened at the right time for me,” she said. “With its combination of one-on-one coaching, group conversations, and a software program I could use on my own, I found my confidence and my communication improving with every session. Our instructor, Katerina Belik, was especially helpful in giving me a single suggestion each week — something concrete to work on before our next meeting.
“The software allows each user to determine their own priorities for enunciation and the flow of words in English. The program includes daily life conversations like booking a hotel, ordering in a restaurant or arranging a date. But the areas that appealed most to me were the phrases and speech more often used in academia and job interviews. The application is set up to allow us to skip forward once we’ve mastered a word or phrase with 60% accuracy, but most of the IOCC participants were going for 80-90% accuracy.”
She said when a user doesn’t achieve 100% accuracy, the software program uses visual cues to indicate where the pronunciation lapse is occurring --such as which part of the word was incorrect, where to place the tongue, or how to form a circle with the lips.
“The IOCC program has helped me feel more confident in discussing difficult concepts, and it is easy to correlate the amount of time I practice to my accuracy score,” said Luo. “The software shows the length of time spent in the exercises — like 15 minutes yesterday and 30 minutes today — which is a good incentive to schedule my practice time and track my study plan.
“Each user also sets their own expectations. I wanted to be very strict and gain a high accuracy score in the academic and job interview sections, so my priority is usually around 90% accuracy. That forces me to put in more time than someone who is satisfied with 80%.”
For specific words, the software program has a search feature. If Luo hears one of her advisors use a word she doesn’t say frequently or observes a colleague indicating confusion at one of her own phrases, she can set up a side project in the software to improve her pronunciation of that particular bit until she can say it like a native.
“Of course, I focused on ‘air quality’ because that is an important phrase in most of my conversations. The search feature has also been helpful for other research phrases that I really want to get right,” she said.
She encourages international graduate students at Rice to explore the IOCC and other communication resources across the campus, even though the effort is likely outside their comfort zone. Although it feels natural to find Rice students from similar countries and continue speaking their native languages, the academic community offers International students an ideal opportunity to improve their oral communication in English.
Luo said, “First thing, don’t be afraid of speaking and expressing yourself in English. You are a graduate student. Grad school is the place to learn to do new and hard things. Ask for specific speech feedback from your instructors and classmates. Join a club. There are lots of chances to participate in communication; don’t hesitate.
“Secondly, when you do have a chance to speak to an audience — even a three or five minute presentation to a small group — treat it as if it is a conference presentation. Rice is a kind and safe environment to try out your new skills. When asked, your faculty and peers will help you find and improve your mistakes in a gentle way. Once you are working in industry, your boss may not be so kind in their feedback, so go beyond your comfort zone now.
“Take the opportunity to grab coffee with a colleague, or walk around the beautiful campus, while you each speak in English. You will find yourself relaxing into a conversation about your research and improving your oral communication skills at the same time.”
This article was originally published for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.