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Neng Iong Chan

Profile photo
Grad Intern
Graduate Assistant/Associate, TEMPE Campus, Mailcode 4601
Student Information:
Graduate Student
Environmental Life Sciences
Liberal Arts & Sciences


Listening to my grandparents talking about family stories was one of my favorite childhood lullabies. They sometimes talked about how our family went through the famine in China in the sixties, and how they helped poor farmers to survive. Helping poor people to live a better life was implanted deeply into my heart. I was dealing with water pollution in my MSc in the Department of Agricultural Engineering. Eventually I started to learn about soil. I was fascinated by the complexity of soil compare to water though both are equally important to humanity. Understanding soil biogeochemical cycles not only can provide precious information in agriculture to ensure future food security, it also can help improve farming practices that would reduce non-point source pollution. To me, soil is no longer a negative word which people call “dirt”, but the womb of the Earth that generates and sustains all living organisms, including humankind.

        My academic career development is a bit like my interaction with soil—soil was trampled under my feet but I don’t even know its importance. When I began to know its significance, I realized that soil development is a very slow process, where biological, physical, and chemical factors intertwined, like my undergraduate and graduate studies in Taiwan—an interdisciplinary and slow process but rich in the knowledge I acquired.

        I entered National Taiwan University (NTU) as an undergraduate student majoring in Life Sciences. I learned so much about biochemistry and genetics in the first three years but I did not find any significant association, or a unifying theory to connect this information to my main interest—ecology. However, in my sophomore year, I met my MSc advisor Dr. Wen-Lian Chang when I first took his Ecology class. I started become extremely interested as I learned how to apply biological and engineering principles to improve degrading ecosystems (e.g. ecosystem restoration) as well as enhance the efficiency of ecosystem services (e.g. constructed wetlands). Through this I found that my interest toward ecology is more application oriented. I began to realize the importance of engineering and human influenced environments in ecosystems. So, I decided to work with Dr. Chang for my MSc in the department of Bioenvironmental System Engineering in order to learn more about agriculture, restoration, engineering, and pollution.

        I actively participated in Dr. Chang’s lab in several projects beginning in my junior year—one of the projects was studying hydrology, soils, and vegetation effect on an endangered endemic fiddle crab—Uca formosensis. This work was in a coastal wetland where the government decided to build a waste water treatment plant. Another project investigated the microhabitat of an endangered endemic butterfly— Troides aeacus’s pupae and its applications in road ecological engineering; while a third project focused on an endangered endemic mitten crab— Eriocheir japonica in natural rivers and agricultural waterways. For my MSc thesis, our team successfully restored an endemic aquatic plant Isoetes Taiwanese in the Dream Lake in Yangmingshan National Park. I was to investigate the factors that helped restoring I . taiwanensis and its habitat succession , focusing on the plant community dynamics, inter-specific competition, water quality, and water depth. I also carried out additional independent research at two constructed wetlands at Taipei County by measuring the impact of wetland edges on nitrogen and phosphorus removal rate on how they affect wetland bird populations. All of this research experience in the engineering school helped me realize two things. First, in tackling negative human impacts in the environment, research is not enough. In addition, the effects of politics, including fair democratic outcomes as well as corruption, have a major effect on policy-making, and this has major effects on our environment. Second, whenever pollution makes its way to water and soil, most of the time is extremely hard to remove and has a large impact in human society (e.g. Cd-polluted farms) or ecosystem (e.g. over fertilization with nitrogen and phosphorus and their downstream pollution).

        I have come to love nature, as we can learn so much from it. But realizing that we can have a huge impact on it, I always share my appreciation and concern to my friends, and sometimes to the public. I worked as an ecological tourist guide for several groups when I was in graduate school. I showed kids how living things are well adapted and how they make their life in a small pond on NTU campus. I led religious people to the mountains and discussed how science and religion meet to appreciate the magnificence of tectonic collision. I toured blind people to wetlands in the delta to have them heard the symphony composed by waves on the shore and wind in the trees. I love to see the wisdom of nature being transformed into the wisdom of culture. This is something beyond science that shed light on me, a toddler of nature.

        After I obtained my MSc degree in the School of Bioenvironmental System Engineering, I had a chance to work as a research assistant with Dr. Bor-ming Jahn, an academician renowned in geochemistry, in the department of Geosciences, NTU. In there, I saw a whole new colorful world beyond the biological one as I put the ‘boring’ rock minerals under the petrographic microscope. Weathering rocks eventually become soil which fosters all kinds of life. Learning about rocks and their geochemistry led me to think about the origin of life. The time I worked in Geosciences was the time I began to put all the pieces together and see our planet as a whole system in a deeper manner.

        In 2011, I read my current advisor Dr. James Elser’s article about the double-edged issue of phosphorus (P) sustainability – shortage of P would cause food security crisis while runoff of excess P would cause water pollution. P formed as rock minerals in ancient times is now being mined at a high rate and processed into fertilizer to grow food to feed 7 billion people (which eventually will increase to 9 billion in 2050). At the same time, the excess P disrupts the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem processes, including precious water supplies.  I now can see that studying P sustainability in natural ecosystems and in human society is something I would love to contribute for my whole life, as it is a geopolitical issue concerned about global human welfare.

        In addition to that, Dr. Elser is one of the leading scientists in Ecological Stoichiometry theory, which explains ecosystem functions and properties in terms of the balance of energy and multiple chemical elements. This theory mainly uses carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in biogeochemistry and cellular level to illuminate their impacts in ecosystem processes. Ecological Stoichiometry brought me huge enlightenment as I found the connection of biochemistry and genetics in ecology. Dr. Elser is a limnologist and applies stoichiometry theory mainly in aquatic systems.  For me, it is so interesting to see that how stoichiometry plays a role in soil biogeochemical cycles and how we can use this tool to assist us to understand and solve the future food security and phosphorus sustainability problem from the ground—which is soil.


2007 BS Life Sciences, National Taiwan University

2010 MS Bioenvironmental System Engineering, National Taiwan University

Research Interests

I am in the Environmental Life Sciences PhD program in the School of Life Sciences at ASU. I received my BSc in Life Sciences, MSc in Bioenvironmental System Engineering and worked as a research assistant in Geosciences at the National Taiwan University before I joined the Elser lab.

I have a variety of interests among constructed wetland, restoration ecology, agriculture and ecosystem nutrient cycling. I am participating in the RCN-SEES research project of sustainable phosphorus at ASU. The aim of the project is to create a sustainable system which will ensure food security by engaging interdisciplinary researchers. 

In my research, I will test the P fertilizers which are processed by different recycled methods - ion-exchanged methods and growing algae that uptakes nutrients from waste water. Also, I will look into soil biogeochemistry by asking how do microbes participate in soil P fractionation and cycling, and how does that affect crop nutrient acquisition under these ‘alternative’ P fertilizers.


Powers, S.M., T.P. Burt, N. Chan, J.J. Elser, P.M Haygarth, N.J. K. Howden, H.P. Jarvie, H.M. Peterson, J. Shen, F.         Worrall, and A.N. Sharpley.  2016.  Long-term accumulation and transport of anthropogenic phosphorus in three river basins.    Nature Geoscience, Vol. 9, p353-356.

Haygarth, P, H.P. Jarvie, S. Powers, A.N. Sharpley, J. Elser, J. Shen, H. Peterson, N.I., Chan, Howden, T. Burt, F. Worrall, F. Zhang, and X. Liu. 2014.  Sustainable phosphorus management and the need for a long-term perspective:  The legacy hypothesis.  Environ. Sci. Technol. 48:8417−8419.

Rowe, H., P.J.A. Withers, P. Baas, N. Chan, D. Doody, J. Holiman, B. Jacobs, H. Li, R. McDowell, A. Sharpley, J. Shen, W. Taheri, M. Wallenstein.  2015.  Integrating legacy soil phosphorus into sustainable nutrient management practices on farms.  Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems.  Submitted and in review.

Chan, N.I. and Chang, W.L. Using Niche Breadth Measurement to Evaluate the Profitable Water Depth for Isoetes taiwanensis in Dream Lake, Yangmingshan National Park. Journal of the Chinese Agricultural Engineering, Vol. 56, No. 3, September 2010.

Fall 2017
Course NumberCourse Title
BIO 151Biological Thinking
BIO 495Undergraduate Research
Fall 2016
Course NumberCourse Title
BIO 151Biological Thinking
BIO 495Undergraduate Research
Fall 2015
Course NumberCourse Title
BIO 495Undergraduate Research
Summer 2015
Course NumberCourse Title
BIO 100The Living World
Spring 2015
Course NumberCourse Title
BIO 100The Living World
Fall 2014
Course NumberCourse Title
BIO 151Biological Thinking
Spring 2014
Course NumberCourse Title
BIO 100The Living World
Fall 2013
Course NumberCourse Title
BIO 100The Living World
Summer 2013
Course NumberCourse Title
BIO 100The Living World
Honors / Awards

2016 ASU GPSA Outstanding Research Award

2016  ASU GPSA Arijit Guha Graduate Student Advocacy Award 

2015  Walton Global Sustainability Studies Scholar

2014  Young Scientist Award, 4th Sustainable P Summit Young Scientist workshop


2016 ASU Tempe campus International Student Committee Board

2015-2016 GPSA Travel Grant and Research Grant reviewer.

2015 GPSA International Graduate Student panel

2015 GPSA Travel Grant and Research Grant panel