Y. C. Ethan Yang Joins Lehigh CEE Faculty

The new assistant professor of water resources engineering uses state-of-the-art modeling capabilities to help solve complex problems related to human-nature systems.


Ethan Yang - Lehigh University

If there’s a single thread throughout Y. C. Ethan Yang’s career in academia — from an undergraduate student in Taiwan to his new position as an assistant professor of water resources engineering at Lehigh — is a fascination with interactions between humans and the natural world.

“I have three degrees, all in different departments, but the thing that connects it all is coupled human-nature systems,” Yang says. “I’m interested in natural processes. I’m also interested in human decisions, but what has driven my pursuits is the way these two things overlap.”

At National Taiwan University (NTU) in Taipei, Yang completed the first of these degrees — a B.S. in geography — in 2002.

“Of course, Taiwan is an island, and we always have lots of typhoons. Natural disasters are always the top news,” Yang says. “The focus for geographers was on how people prepare for natural disasters and how the government would react after they occurred. I realized fairly early in my career that, while this was of interest to me, I really needed something more solid to base it on, something I could calculate.”

So as he transitioned to the Master level, still at NTU, Yang moved into bioenvironmental systems engineering. Then, for his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Yang officially joined a civil and environmental engineering program, completing his degree in 2010.

His dissertation is titled "Modeling Watershed Management with an Ecological Objective - A Multi-Agent System Based Approach,” and indeed, one of Yang’s primary research thrusts remains finding ways to quantify the best approaches to take for climate change and extreme weather preparation.

“Our goal is to use information from the model to help governments and NGOs reshape policy,” Yang says. “That can take the form of a tech subsidy, stronger flood insurance premiums, or reduced costs for instruments that can help prevent or deal with damage. Whatever the recommendation, the goal of the research is to have a real-world impact. We want to help as many people as we can prepare for and recover from both short- and long-term changes.”

After completing his Ph.D., Yang worked as a research scientist for the State of Illinois before taking a research assistant professor position at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“At UMass, I worked on a number of projects with organizations including the U.S. Department of Energy and the World Bank that look at the water-energy-food nexus,” Yang says. “Our goal is to explore how we can secure our future in each of these areas simultaneously while accounting for 21st century challenges including climate change and population growth.”

Occasionally, these projects ask Yang to work in the field. “I’ve traveled to Mali and Tanzania to speak with local farmers about their concerns and to understand the ways climate change is affecting them,” he says.

Primarily, however, this work involves agent-based modeling that asks Yang and his students to explore how individuals obtain and use water, energy, and food and how these uses might change as the climate does.

“Maybe your behavior is affected because your neighbor chooses to adopt a new technology or you begin to perceive climate change as a greater risk you start acting in more environmentally-conscious ways,” Yang says. “These and many other factors make their way into our models, which ultimately map human behavior in such a way that it can help governments test or adopt new policies that will help in both the lead-up and the aftermath of disasters.”

Yang plans to continue his work in all these fields as a new member of the Lehigh CEE faculty this fall. “I’m very happy to be at such a great engineering school and a department with such a strong reputation,” he says.

Panos Diplas, P.C. Rossin Professor and Chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, says Yang brings to Lehigh state-of-the-art modeling capabilities and considerable experience in water resources systems analysis, including innovative approaches for modeling complex, multi-scale administrative structures associated with water, energy, food and ecosystem management.

“He is an important addition to our department and the College of Engineering,” Diplas says. “His background and expertise will allow for many collaborative efforts with other faculty members within Lehigh."

Yang is already eyeing collaborative, interdisciplinary work with computer scientists that would improve his models so that they’d require less data to make their determinations. And he’s grateful and excited to be able to work on his and other projects at Lehigh.

“When someone asks why I wanted to come here, I say, ‘Why wouldn’t I? It’s an outstanding institution!’”

By John Gilpatrick

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