With collaborative research, China scientist wins ASPIRE Prize

Growing up in rural China, Huai Chen spent hours fishing, collecting aquatic plants and playing on local riverbanks. But it wasn’t until he reached university that he understood the global significance of wetlands—and devoted his career to studying and protecting them.

“Because of their importance and their biodiversity, I decided to focus on wetlands. I was born in the countryside of Chengdu, where there are many rice paddies and tributaries,” said Chen, now a professor of ecology at Chengdu Institute of Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Chen’s research on the ecological imperative of wetlands has grown enormously over the years, along with his collaboration with other scientists from throughout the APEC region. Selected from a group of 12 finalists, Chen won the 2020 ASPIRE prize, awarded to a scientist who shows excellence in research and close cooperation with counterparts from other economies. 

Chen said he was honored to receive the award and proud to work with fellow researchers, as they strive to better understand the region’s wetlands and the role that they can play in combating climate change.

Dr Chen working in the wetlands of Canada

Officials from APEC economies announced Chen as the winner when they met last year in Malaysia, chair of APEC 2020. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the APEC Science Prize for Innovation, Research and Education or ASPIRE prize is supported by Wiley and Elsevier, publishers of scientific knowledge. With the 2020 theme “Biodiversity for a Prosperous Economy,” the award for scientists aged under 40 drew nominations from around the region.

“For over a decade, the ASPIRE prize has inspired APEC’s leadership to develop evidence-based, policy recommendations to help support future generations of scientific discoveries,” said Dr. Rebecca Sta Maria, Executive Director of the APEC Secretariat.

“In fact, there is no better time to celebrate science and technology than during the pandemic as it drives home the value and importance of this field in our lives.”

Critical for biodiversity and climate change

Lagoons, marshes, mangroves and other aquatic areas cover less than 10 percent of the Earth’s land surface. But with a rich array of animals and plants, wetlands are a vital source of biodiversity. Millions of people also depend on wetlands for their livelihoods, which provide food, fresh water, coastal protection from storm surges and a range of other social, economic and environmental services.

“Rice paddies provide the staple diet for about 3.5 billion people. The livelihoods of 660 million people depend on wetland fishing,” said Chen, who also cited tourism as an important sector in some wetland areas, generating jobs and income for local people.

Wetlands are also critical in efforts to counter climate change. Peatlands, for example, a type of wetland in tropical and in colder regions, make up only about 3 percent of global land area. But their deep layers store large amounts of carbon. They contain roughly twice as much carbon as the world’s forests, in the form of decaying vegetation that has built up over many years.

Significant areas of wetlands have been degraded, drained and converted to other uses over long periods, in the region and globally. Protecting and restoring wetlands could become an important strategy for mitigating carbon dioxide and achieving global goals to limit greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Wetlands could become a net carbon sink, meaning they store more carbon than they release into the atmosphere, thereby slowing the process of global warming.

“Carbon storage is an important ecological function of wetlands. Therefore, how to stabilize this substantial carbon stock and put even more carbon into wetland soils is our research priority,” Chen said.

International collaboration key

Chen began focusing on wetlands as an undergraduate in 2003. Under the supervision of his professor, he studied plant biodiversity along China’s Yangtze River. But he has since moved his focus to the vast Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, home to different kinds of wetlands.

With their waterlogged soils, wetlands produce methane gas, which has a higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide. Increased surface temperatures as a result of climate change could lead to increased methane emissions from some wetlands, including those on the plateau.

Chen’s team has worked closely with other researchers, including from universities in Canada and the United States, to monitor and model greenhouse gas emissions from wetlands. International collaboration is key, he said, since wetlands vary across different environments and climates. Together they have developed a new model to simulate future methane emissions from wetlands.

“Without the collaboration with them, we would not have our present achievements,” said Chen.

Over the years, they have published more than 70 papers in high-impact journals. Their work and findings have been cited more than 2,000 times, and two of them are recognized as highly cited papers in related fields.

“These studies are important to improve public understanding about the importance of wetlands for climate change mitigation,” Chen said.

“In the future, our group will extend our study to wetlands’ contribution to people and how to maximize and secure these contributions.”