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Student Spotlight: Victoria Yell

As part of our Summer Spotlight series, PHHI intern, Malak Hassanein, interviewed PHHI graduate students to share their stories. Victoria Yell (VY) is a graduate student in the Li Lab at the NC Research Campus.

PHHI: Tell me a bit about yourself.

VY: I’m in my 5th year as a PhD student studying plant physiology, biochemistry, and genetics under Dr. Sirius Li. I became interested in plants as a way to improve human life, mainly focusing on biofuel and bio-based products. I’m originally from Texas, completing my undergraduate at Texas A&M University.

PHHI: Tell me about your research.

VY: Our primary focus in the Li Lab revolves around basic research leading to the eventual development of bioenergy sourced from lignocellulosic materials. These materials can be derived from various parts of plants, trees, or other woody materials. One of the most important issues in our field is isolating energy rich components from the cell wall. Modifying the cell wall often results in plants growing smaller, which necessitates in-depth studies on the genetic systems that control plant growth. Despite the difficulties, we remain dedicated to unraveling these mysteries and advancing sustainable bioenergy technologies.

PHHI: What made you interested in this field of work?

VY: I became interested in this field of work during my early studies when I was initially focused on algae research. It dawned on me that lignocellulose, being the most abundant form of organic carbon, may be a better target for developing bio-based fuels. As I delved deeper into the subject, I realized the vast potential of these materials, which unfortunately couldn’t be fully utilized due to various limitations. This drove me to explore ways to replace fossil fuels and find sustainable alternatives, motivating me to contribute to the development of greener energy solutions.

PHHI: What have you learned about yourself and your field during your time at PHHI?

VY: During my time at PHHI, I have discovered the profound potential resulting from renewable energy research across multiple scientific disciplines. However, I also began to recognize that without the necessary policies and business incentives, the progress of this technology may be hindered. These insights have led me to recognize that science can have a far-reaching impact beyond the laboratory bench, motivating me to actively engage in science policy advocacy. Serving as the president of the Science Policy Club at NC State University in 2021-22 further reinforced my commitment to driving positive change through the intersection of science and policy.

This may sound cliche, but personally I’ve learned that believing in yourself takes you a long way. In order to grow, you need to stop making excuses and just do it. 

-Victoria Yell, Plants for Human Health Institute PhD Student

PHHI: Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

VY: I have a deep passion for science and lab work, but wanted the training to pursue the creative side of science. In the lab, you need to follow protocols and often do repetitive tasks. However, dynamic thinking plays a crucial role during the data interpretation phase of research. My scientific training as a PhD student has allowed me to weave together threads of information to form compelling stories and connect different pieces to create new information.

PHHI: What are some of your hobbies and passions?

VY: I explore my creativity by making pottery. My favorite pieces to create are adorable dog planters (Instagram: @longleafpottery). I also love biking and exploring the fantastic bike routes around Charlotte, especially mountain biking adventures. I also have a true passion for cat rescue. Saving and providing a loving home for these furry companions brings immense joy and fulfillment to my life. 

PHHI: What do you enjoy doing around the Kannapolis area?

VY: My favorite thing to do is to explore historic Concord’s Gibson Mill and then head to the High Branch Brewery for a refreshing beer. I also love to take in a thrilling mountain bike adventure at Brown Mill, followed by delicious tacos upstairs and a fun time roller skating.

PHHI: If you could eat one fruit or vegetable for the rest of your life, what would it be?

VY: It would undoubtedly be beets. I know that not many people enjoy them, but I could eat them all the time.