Missouri tennis courts weren’t the only thing that swayed Chung-Ho Lin’s decision not to move back to Taipei, Taiwan, but they were pretty high on the list.
Laughing, Lin recalled waiting in line for hours before getting the chance to play on the crowded courts back in his home country. And things didn’t get much easier once he made it on the court.
“You eventually get a chance to play, and they put six people in one court with three balls. … And you have to pay for the court!” he said. “Here, you’re so spoiled: You have 20 courts sitting there all day long.”
Thirty years later, Lin has traded in his tennis racket and running shoes for a lab coat and microscope. (Though he’s still known to play a mean game on the weekends.)
As a research associate professor at MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Center for Agroforestry, Lin tends to juggle multiple projects at once. Most recently, he’s been involved in the statewide effort to track COVID-19 using wastewater. He also works on several projects related to bioremediation and natural product development to reduce toxins in the environment.
Bioremediation has to do with finding environmentally and economically viable ways to rid ecosystems of dangerous pollutants using things already found in nature. Natural product development is all about finding ways to turn waste into something that is environmentally or economically functional, like grinding down corn cobs to be used in cat litter.
“Basically, we’re taking advantage of what Mother Nature can offer to try and clean up the mess caused by humans,” he explained.
Forging a path, finding a home
Lin came to Columbia in 1991 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in forestry from MU. He was 26 and already had a degree from a university in Taiwan and job experience at one of the island’s biggest environmental engineering companies.
“My original plan was to come get my degree and then go back home to continue my career,” he said. But a few years and several degrees later, he decided to stay.
“Taiwan is such a pretty island,” Lin said, describing a compact country with coastal markets full of fresh fish and mountaintops that stay snowcapped year-round. “You can go to the ocean in the morning, go to a mountain hot spring and then go to the night market in the evening.”
But, he said, by the time he got to MU he was “tired of the city life.”
“That’s why Missouri attracted me,” he said. “It has nice scenery and seasonal change. And the people are extremely warm and friendly.”
After making the move, he felt the normal college student homesickness, compounded by being an ocean away from his family. He said it was difficult to find people and food that reminded him of home, and it cost $20 every time he wanted to call his mom.
His dorm, Hatch Hall, had no air conditioning, but it was close to the tennis courts where he and his friends would sometimes play for six to eight hours a day.
He met his wife on the MU tennis courts. The two grew up only blocks away from each other in Taipei.
“She went to high school with my cousin,” Lin said. “But we never met until we were both in Columbia.”
Allowing room for creativity
Lin also decided to stay in Columbia because of the global platform MU offered for his work, as well as the opportunity for creativity and curiosity in project selection. In Taiwan, there is a strict hierarchy in academia and less freedom to choose what you want to work on.
“(Mizzou) is more like a playground where I have all these building blocks that I can assemble in any way, shape or form that I want,” he said.
One of these freedoms that Lin has embraced is working with experts in different fields. One of Lin’s cross-disciplinary colleagues is Gustavo Carlo, who used to work at MU and is now director of the Cultural Resiliency and Learning Center at the University of California, Irvine.
Carlo spent 10 years in MU’s College of Human and Environmental Sciences, some of which he spent working with Lin. The two worked together on a project analyzing the impact of exposure to environmental toxins on kids’ cognitive and social development.
They thought up the idea for the project over dinner in Costa Rica, where both were representing MU as part of a global scholars program. Despite the two researchers’ starkly different backgrounds — Lin’s in the biological sciences and Carlo’s in the social sciences — Carlo said they work well together, in part because of Lin’s persistent optimism.
“He’s a very positive person, but his positivity is also part of his resilience. I think it helps him cope with whatever challenges he faces,” Carlo remembered fondly. “And it’s a positivity that is contagious, that makes him really great to work and hang out with.”
Lending a helping hand
Mohamed Bayati, civil and environmental engineering research scientist in CAFNR, works with Lin in the wastewater lab and described him as a productive and supportive scientist.
The two have known each other since 2015, when Bayati’s wife began working for Lin. Bayati later took a part-time job under Lin before accepting a full-time position in the wastewater lab after receiving his Ph.D. from MU.
Bayati, who came to the U.S. from Iraq, said that in addition to being a great scientist, Lin is also a great friend. When Bayati’s young daughter was sick and in the hospital, he said Lin offered him the flexibility he needed to take care of her, telling him to put family first.
“He’s part of my family here,” Bayati said. “Because we are both international, we don’t have any relatives here. … But my wife and I always feel like we can rely on him. (He’s) like a big brother.”
Carlo also described Lin as a generous friend and colleague, who helped him settle into Columbia by taking Carlo with him to his weekend tennis outings. And despite only knowing him for a few months at the time, Lin was the first person to donate to a memorial fund for Carlo’s father after his death.
“I think he’s really a treasure, a treasure at Mizzou and for his students,” Carlo said.
Lin tries to visit his own family in Taiwan twice a year. Since COVID hit, however, he hasn’t been able to go back.
He’s hopeful that as more people get vaccinated he’ll be able to visit soon. “My family is what I miss the most … and the food; I miss my mother’s cooking,” he said. But right now, with everything going on, “it’s probably not the best time to leave my post.”