Accomplished researcher finds success in work with students

Dr. Xiaoping Pan, professor in the Department of Biology at East Carolina University, is this year’s recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Research & Creative Activity.

The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented during the university’s Research and Scholarship Awards Ceremony on April 2. The award is presented in recognition of originality and excellence in research and creative activities over the course of an entire career. A recipient’s qualifications are based on their sustained high-quality work and contributions to the academic functions of ECU.

Pan and her husband, Dr. Baohong Zhang, were recruited by ECU’s Department of Biology, and they became proud Pirates in 2009 and 2007, respectively.

Dr. Jeffrey McKinnon, who was biology chair when Pan was recruited, said he’s proud of the committee’s work to bring her on board and that she’s been a great colleague and member of the department.

“Supervising Xiaoping was mainly a matter of staying out of her way because she’s so effective and active and productive, with so much initiative,” said McKinnon.

“She gets funding for her work and pursues it relentlessly; she gets funding for her students to support them. And she’s also providing a terrific education in research to a lot of talented young people who have since gone on to great careers and to do terrific things,” said McKinnon.

Pan received a Bachelor of Science in environmental biology from Nanjing University in China and a doctoral degree in environmental toxicology from Texas Tech University. She said she originally hoped to pursue biochemistry in college but was admitted into an environmental biology program instead. There, she received a reading assignment that heavily influenced her career. “Silent Spring,” by marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson, documents the environmental harm caused by DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) containing pesticides used to kill mosquitoes and agricultural pests during World War II.

“DDT was a synthetic, man-made insecticide that had much adverse effect to the environment. It didn’t just kill the pest insect — it killed the majority of insects. It’s very persistent in the environment and it’s very difficult to get rid of by nature, itself. And we found that DDT had very severe health effects to environmental and human health,” said Pan.

One area of Pan’s research looks at how exposures to environmental toxicants like crude oil, pesticides, nicotine, PFAS and other chemicals affect the environment, organisms and human health.

Following the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the largest oil spill in history, Pan and colleagues were funded by the National Science Foundation to study health effects of the spill. Her work helped determine that the dispersants initially used to minimize the harmful impacts of the oil spill were equally as toxic to marine life. Today, Pan acts as a consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency and has helped bring about beneficial policy changes related to dispersant use in crude oil spill contaminations.

“Our work actually affects regulations to better protect the environment, organisms and human health,” said Pan.

Another area of Pan’s research includes the study of genetics — how genes operate, how they influence traits and how they can be altered. She’s looking at genes in terms of economically important systems like crops and biomedical issues.

Her team is currently researching nematode infections on crops and developing strategies to combat nematode infection, which could have major beneficial impacts on crop yields.

“Right now, we are developing a new technology — a genome editing tool that can inhibit the parasitic nematode’s survival and engineer cotton plants to be more nematode resistant. If our strategy is successful, this will help the economy and help farmers so they don’t lose too much yield to the nematode infections,” she said.

A clear leader in her field, Pan has produced over 50 peer-reviewed publications, and her work has been cited over 11,000 times, a strong indication of how highly her expertise is regarded.

“She doesn’t just do the work and publish the papers and get the funding — other people cite her work. So, it’s clear she is making a major contribution to how others think about the problems that she works on because they cite her work so frequently,” said McKinnon.

Pan has had just as big of an impact on her students as she has on her field and department.

Jennings Shepherd, 2023 ECU graduate and biology major, said, “Dr. Pan is extremely dedicated to the research she does and to the students she teaches, and you can see that in how she interacts with her students. She treats you not only as a student, but as a colleague when she’s mentoring you. She doesn’t put you below in any way, and she makes sure that you’re understanding whatever she’s teaching or whatever you’re running an experiment on.”

Dr. David Chalcraft, current chair of the biology department, remarked on how Pan is going above and beyond to provide transformative experiences to students at ECU.

“She’s interested in training the next generation of scientists, and she’s training those scientists to be collaborative and globally engaged,” said Chalcraft.

During her time at ECU, she has secured over $1.6 million in external funding for research and scholarly activities that include a study abroad research program in China. Pan is proud of the program, which introduces students to collaborative research and to the world.

“It’s exposure to different cultures. It’s a very enriched environment for them where they can exchange ideas, so it mutually benefits both sides. I’m very proud of this experience we’re able to offer to students,” she said.

While Pan has had many successes in her career, she feels the greatest achievement is helping students find success in their endeavors.

“My biggest success I feel is still student success. Our teacher impact to me is the sense that we all stand on somebody’s shoulders. And, then one day, you become the shoulders of somebody else,” said Pan.

Chalcraft feels Pan has had a huge impact on ECU overall.

“She’s shown that ECU is a place in which people can engage in very high quality and very impactful research,” he said.