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Profile: Nannan Jiang

Published June 2019

“Bacteria help clean our environment.”

Nannan Jiang can do better than an elevator pitch–he has a summary of his research down to just five words.

Now an alumnus, Jiang first came to the Bredesen Center (BC) after hearing about it while an ORISE post-Master’s program participant. The ability to work at ORNL while pursuing his doctorate was appealing, but the primary attraction of the BC for Jiang was Knowledge Breadth. Alongside other coursework, BC students choose a track for their Knowledge Breadth focus from among entrepreneurship, policy, and outreach, or a combination of these. The outreach track is newer than the other two, and pending approval of a proposal that Jiang helped to draft, it will be accommodated in the BC with course recommendations and other opportunities to help students get involved through multiple channels.

Jiang pursued science outreach during his time at the BC, which strengthened his passion for scientific communication. It’s why he’s so good at describing his research, even when he only has five words to do it. It’s also why he’s so involved with science communities and encourages others to do the same.

“It was my first or second year in the Bredesen Center when I felt like I actually understood how science works – where the money comes from,” Jiang said. “We have an obligation to tell others what we did with their money. It’s part of the business of science. If science looks like magic to others, it cannot be sustained over time.”

The challenge to scientists is to take on this outward-facing perspective. Science outreach–communication, education, community-building, mentorship–represents this effort. “It’s all about the drive home,” Jiang said. “That’s when I think about what I’ve done for others – more often than not, I answer this question with outreach.”

Jiang himself has been a mentor to several interns over the course of his doctoral career, and one from the ARC program has even gone on to study microbiology as a result of collaboration with Jiang and his team. Jiang has also served as a mentor to a team of undergraduates as part of the International Genetically Engineering Machine (iGEM) team, a competitive research program in synthetic biology. The iGEM team won a silver medal at the international conference in Boston last year. Jiang has found taking these mentorship opportunities to be valuable both to himself and the scientific community. “Mentoring is not taught in school,” he said. “We have a responsibility to train the next generation to ensure the sustainability of science over time.”

Jiang emphasizes the value of programs like ORISE (Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education) and ORPA (Oak Ridge Postdoc Association), which provide opportunities for students and early-career scientists to receive guidance and find support. He serves on the ORPA Executive Committee, organizes professional development events and resources for ORPA’s community with HR counterpart Allison O. Doty, and is passionate about building strong communities in which scientists can thrive.

Jiang has applied his outreach talents to the Bredesen Center as well, as a member of the new Student Advisory Council (SAC). The SAC is a group of students who have made themselves available to peers and meets regularly with BC director Suresh Babu. Considering the large and growing size of the BC, the SAC aims to help BC members focus less on logistics and more on research. Jiang hopes it can help increase efficiency and ease of navigation for all BC members.

And this focus on outreach will not end once Jiang leaves the BC. Jiang said his primary career values are to “impact society and mentor students.” The skills that Jiang has developed through his extensive involvement with science outreach initiatives will continue to serve him throughout his career.

By: Megan Lilly