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Yao moves from landfills to landmark award

Jeanny Yao

Jeanny Yao’s first visit to a landfill changed her life, ultimately earning her a place as one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 for 2014.

The Top 20 award is given by the not-for-profit, Youth in Motion, to recognize young Canadians for their exceptional leadership, innovation and achievement and is only the latest in a series of awards this young researcher has received.

“I was so honoured by this opportunity and humbled by their decision to give me the award,” Yao said after attending the Top 20 leadership summit in early June.

Yao, 19, a double major in biochemistry and environmental science at U of T Scarborough, was a high school student in Vancouver when her epiphany occurred. During a visit to a local landfill, she was struck by the need to reduce waste, specifically plastic pollution.

“There’s always one thing that inspires someone to take action,” said Yao. “Although people often come across Google images of environmental devastation, we don’t understand the severity of the problem until we see it firsthand.

“I really made a connection, and I thought that maybe there was a way to contribute through scientific investigation.”

Yao and her best friend, Miranda Wang, who ran the high school environmental club together, read extensively about the possibility of microbes degrading plastic. They created a research plan, applied to a biotechnology competition and approached Dr. Lindsay Eltis at the University of British Columbia for guidance. While doing their research in his lab, the pair discovered strains of bacteria that degraded plasticizers, toxic additives in plastic.

The results earned Yao and Wang the Greatest Commercialization Award at the national Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada and were valued at $10 million by the panel of judges. Yao was named one of Canada’s Future Leaders Under 25 by Maclean’s magazine, and she and Wang were invited to participate in a TED conference talent search in Vancouver. They delivered a talk that explained their research and the journey that led them to investigate plastic degradation.

Attendees at the salon where they presented a talk voted for the pair to deliver their presentation at the 2013 TED conference in Long Beach, California, quite an honour for teens.

 “TED was definitely an eye-opener,” said Yao, who saw such notables as the singer, Bono, and the founders of Google at the conference.  She was equally excited by the opportunity to meet Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Institute, who discovered the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” the floating plastic waste that is choking the world’s oceans, and is a crusader against plastic pollution.

In fact, the young research star remains humble, despite the acclaim she has earned. As excited as she was by her initial research success, Yao is still focused on her original mission of finding a way to degrade solid plastic waste itself.  Since arriving at UTSC two years ago, she has been working in Professor Roberta Fulthorpe’s graduate research lab, exploring bacteria genetics and working toward a solution.

“Without any expectations, Miranda and I were surprised to have obtained good results,” said Yao. “I know that most of the time, research doesn’t come with success. You need luck, mentorship and resources, and constant re-evaluation.”

Yao’s talents aren’t confined only to the lab and the classroom. Since 2013, she has been involved with TEDxUofT,, helping to organize the annual tri-campus TEDx conference at the University of Toronto. Beginning this summer, she will chair the organizing committee for the 2015 conference.

“I am definitely very excited and nervous at the same time,” said Yao.” I have a lot to learn in my role as the chair but I also know that I can depend on my awesome team for support.

“I am looking forward to a great conference.”

Undoubtedly, not only a great conference, but a great career will be part of Yao’s future.

© University of Toronto Scarborough