Tiffany Lee, May 26, 2021
Wang ‘persists,’ focuses on helping others feel welcome
May is Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American Heritage Month, a time dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the ways in which the APIDA community contributes to the history, culture and achievements of the United States. This month, the Office of Research and Economic Development is spotlighting the work and thoughts of members of Nebraska’s APIDA research community to highlight how they strengthen and diversify our university.
Lily Wang is a professor in the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction. Her research focuses primarily on room acoustics and noise control, and has received funding from the Environmental Protection Agency; the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute; the National Science Foundation; the National Institutes of Health and more.
Wang also serves as associate dean for faculty and inclusion in the College of Engineering, a role that charges her with ensuring Nebraska is an inviting and rewarding place for faculty and graduate students from across the country and world. Below, she reflects on how her family reached the United States, how her perspectives on inclusivity have evolved and her increasing conscientiousness about issues of race and gender in academia.
The following Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity.
First, can you describe the research you do at the university?
I study architectural acoustics and noise control. There are not very many of us in the U.S. who do that. I learned about acoustics in a physics class in high school. The textbook had a paragraph about acoustical engineering. Once I read that, it was like “Bing!” Everything fell into place. I decided I wanted to design the concert halls that people sing in.
But once I got to Penn State for graduate school, I had an adviser who sat me down and said, “Lily, I really think you should do a Ph.D.” I am grateful to him because he convinced me that the Ph.D. would open doors. I flew from Denmark, where I was doing a postdoctoral fellowship, to Omaha in December of 1999 at the request of a former colleague from Penn State who had recently been hired into the new architectural engineering program at UNL. I realized a career in academia could be really cool. I feel lucky, 20 years in, that I came.
Recently, I have been doing a large project focused on the acoustics and indoor environments of classrooms, and how they impact student performance. The Environmental Protection Agency sponsored seven projects nationally through the STAR Program, each for approximately $1 million. It was a perfect fit for me and a group of colleagues at the Durham School. We went into 220 classrooms and deployed measurement kits that logged environmental conditions. My acoustics group applied machine learning, which is a newer tool in architectural acoustics that allowed us to understand the soundscape of a classroom in a much deeper way than people have done in the past. Ultimately, we found that that the higher the non-speech sound levels were, students did worse on math achievement scores. The difference was statistically significant. Compared to past research in this area, our project was on a much larger scale. Whereas other projects may have gone into 40 or so classrooms, we went into 220, which made it much more powerful. We also considered factors beyond just acoustics, like lighting, thermal and indoor air quality conditions.
Tell me about your racial and ethnic background.
My family goes back to China. In 1949, my grandfather was a high-ranking general in the Kuomintang, which lost (in the Chinese Civil War). So my grandfather fled to Taiwan with his four younger kids, of which my 5-year-old father was the oldest. They left their two older daughters in China because they always thought they’d go back. But my father didn’t see his sister again for 40 years. My grandfather, Wang Sheng, is actually rather famous in Taiwan. He was No. 2 to Chiang Kai-shek’s son, who took over in Taiwan. When I participated in the Love Boat study tour (a summer program that enables young people of Chinese descent to become acquainted with Chinese culture and language), I got a lot of press because I’m Wang Sheng’s granddaughter. Even now, when I talk to others with ties to Taiwan and they learn who my grandfather is, they’re surprised – I guess because I seem quite American.
My father eventually came to Tennessee Tech and the University of Tennessee Space Institute, met my mom through a good friend, and then I was born. I grew up in Chattanooga in a very strong Asian American community. I did not speak anything but Chinese until I went to kindergarten. I took Chinese lessons every Sunday. My closest friends are the women I grew up in that community. They all live in areas with large Asian populations, like northern California or New York City, and can’t imagine why I’m in Nebraska. But I’m comfortable here.
What is it like to be an Asian working in academia at Nebraska?
I really believe that there is some part of me – which is why I’m an engineer, and why I’m an Asian person living in Nebraska – that persists. There is something about my personality where I don’t feel isolated in the same way my friends do. I have always felt very welcome, and I actually consider myself an ambassador for Nebraska. I married a Canadian, and my relatives have actually asked me, “Do people heckle you when you walk down the street in Nebraska with David?” No! I feel like they have visions of how we live that are quite worse than what it is.
Since taking on the inclusion role in the engineering college, I’ve started learning a lot. I’ve become more sensitive to the fact that others aren’t “clueless” like me. They are much more sensitive and aware about being a woman in science and being Asian in a majority-white community. I used to have rose-colored glasses; now, I can see how the environment could be made more welcoming.
The recent political landscape has brought more cultural awareness to these issues. I am really upset about people calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” and I cannot believe people are walking down the street in New York City and being attacked because they are Asian. I have an aunt who lives in New York City, and that really scares me. These events are spurring me to be more conscientious.