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Research to fight world hunger

Yafei Guo came from China to Kiel, to conduct research into more environmentally friendly agriculture – and fell in love with the cool north. A doctoral degree scholarship from the Gesellschaft für Energie und Klimaschutz Schleswig-Holstein GmbH now gives him the necessary leeway for his ambitious dissertation project

EKSH doctoral degree scholarship recipient Yafei Guo
© Anna-Kristina Pries, Uni Kiel

EKSH doctoral degree scholarship recipient Yafei Guo has been researching at the Faculty of Agricultural and Nutritional Sciences at the CAU since 2018.

When Yafei Guo cycles alongside the Kiel Fjord, he enjoys the fresh Baltic Sea breeze. "I was born in central China, where it is very hot in summer, you sweat a lot and the air conditioning runs 24/7," said the 26-year-old with a laugh. He comes from the Chinese province of Henan, a region where summer temperatures climb far beyond the 30-degree mark. Nevertheless, he feels homesick, especially right now. Because travelling to his homeland of China is currently not an option. The last time he saw his family was in the summer of 2019. Therefore, weekly video chats with his parents are essential. "Preferably on Saturdays, because of the time difference."

Guo completed his Bachelor's degree in Resource and Environmental Science at the Henan University of Science and Technology, and his Master's degree in Environmental Science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. What then brought him to northern Germany of all places? It was his complex research field and the good reputation of a CAU scientist. PhD supervisor Karl H. Mühling, professor of plant nutrition, is an expert in the field of nitrogen dynamics in soils and crops. Yafei Guo wanted to study environmentally-friendly fertilisation methods with him. Guo’s dedication landed him a doctoral degree scholarship from the Gesellschaft für Energie und Klimaschutz Schleswig-Holstein (EKSH) this summer. The non-profit company supports early career researchers in the areas of the energy transition and climate protection.

Since September 2018, Guo has been a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Plant Nutrition and Soil Science at the Faculty of Agricultural and Nutritional Sciences at Kiel University. His research focuses on nitrification inhibitors. Plants convert nitrogen present in the soil, for example due to fertilization, into nitrates by means of oxidation. Guo's goal is to delay this biochemical process so that the nitrate content of the soil remains as low as possible. What at first sounds abstract can provide clear answers to one of the biggest challenges of the present. Nitrification inhibition improves the nutrient balance of the soil, thereby making the earth more fertile and harvests more bountiful. Fewer nitrates enter the groundwater, and the release of nitrogen oxides from the soil into the atmosphere can also be reduced. "This will allow us to reduce environmental pollution and global warming," said the graduate student, who is visibly proud of his research. He has just completed a laboratory phase. For nearly four months, he carried out experiments with various bonds and mechanisms of action, and obtained gas and soil samples. Now comes the painstaking data analysis.

It is certainly a bit unusual that the son of a police officer and a primary school teacher from rural China has decided to pursue fertilizer research far away in Schleswig-Holstein. Behind this, however, lies a great deal of idealism. "In many other countries around the world, there are still too many people who are hungry – I wanted to contribute to a part of the solution. Even if it is just a tiny part," said the scholarship recipient. And in any case, Germany is a good place for early career researchers. Guo is grateful that his PhD supervisor motivated him to go for the one-year scholarship. For him, it means not only financial support, but also networking, projects and of course, prestige. He therefore recommends that other doctoral researchers simply give it a shot. "We need to write up our results anyway, so the application is just a small step."

Author: Anna-Kristina Pries

The EKSH doctoral degree scholarship

Since 2013, the non-profit company Gesellschaft für Energie und Klimaschutz Schleswig-Holstein GmbH (EKSH) has awarded doctoral degree scholarships for a maximum of three years to Master's graduates from the fields of the energy transition and climate protection at a university in Schleswig-Holstein. Dissertation projects receive €1,400 per month in the first year, and up to €1,500 in the third year. In addition, there is an annual lump sum of up to €1,500 for equipment and travel costs. Workshops, joint projects and events promote networking and exchanges among early career researchers. A total of ten dissertation projects are currently supported.

Every year, there are one or two application rounds for new scholarships. The research must support the goal of reducing energy-related emissions in the areas of heating, electricity and mobility, and should have a connection to the state of Schleswig-Holstein. Application-oriented, technically-focused research as well as economic and social science topics are eligible for funding. The application process is by means of a ten-page exposé, for which the EKSH offers application advice. The EKSH board of directors awards the funding, based on the recommendations of a panel of three university lecturers. (apr)