New faculty profile: Xia Zhu-Barker studies sustainability of agroecosystems

Xia Zhu-Barker joined the UW–Madison faculty in June 2022 as an assistant professor in the Department of Soil Science. Funding for this position comes from the Dairy Innovation Hub, which has supported over a dozen faculty positions so far at UW–Madison, UW–Platteville and UW–River Falls.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I was born and grew up in a remote village in Chongqing, China.

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I received a master’s degree in soil ecology from the Northeast Institute of Geography and Agroecology and a Ph.D. in botany from the Chengdu Institute of Biology, both under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. After completing my doctorate, I had my postdoctoral training at UC Davis and was promoted to assistant project scientist in 2015 and to assistant professional researcher in 2019, and later to associate professional researcher in 2021.

How did you get into your field of research?
During the time I grew up, I worked a lot with my parents on the farm. Back then, all field work was conducted by hand. Everyone in my family worked very hard, but we barely had enough food. So my parents’ big wish for me was to leave the farm and don’t come back. Years later, I learned that if someone had taught us how to manage our farm in a sustainable way, we would [have had enough to eat]. To help more people to avoid starving and protect our environment, I followed my heart and became a soil scientist.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
The ultimate goal of my work is to improve the performance of agroecosystems by integrating biogeochemical, ecological, environmental, agronomic, economic, and social knowledge into the food, energy, and water aspects of management decisions.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
The Department of Soil Science is one of the oldest and most renowned soil science departments in the world. The first time I heard about it was when I was in college taking a soil chemistry class. My instructor told me that UW–Madison was a world known university and its soil science major was one of the best. Since then, I had UW–Madison in my mind as an ideal place to pursue my career.

What was your first visit to campus like?
I first came to campus for an in-person interview in June 2021. I arrived in Madison at midnight. The moment I got out of the airplane, I immediately felt that this was the place that I saw myself living, though it was dark outside. The smell in the air, the humidity, the temperature and the landscape, all made me feel I was home. The two-day campus visit later on confirmed my first impression about Madison.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
Curiosity, critical thinking, and open-mindedness.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
Yes, I infrequently use Twitter @XiaZhuBarker.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Absolutely. My work focuses on addressing issues of agricultural sustainability including climate change mitigation, and focuses on soil, plant, and microbial interactions that ultimately affect livestock and human health. Dairy production in Wisconsin is a particularly vital area in which to investigate how agroecosystems respond to a changing environment. These topics well align with the Wisconsin Idea by extending impact of research and education from the classroom to the wider society, from the local community to the state, and from the nation to the world.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
The laughing gas (nitrous oxide) that dental doctors normally use to manage pain and anxiety during dental treatment is a greenhouse gas. It has a global warming potential 296 times higher than carbon dioxide.

What are your hobbies and other interests?
Yoga (especially Bikram yoga), hiking, and gardening are my treats.