Ali Ling

Member of the CEGE Professional Advisory Board

Ali Ling, PE, Ph.D. (BCE 2008) is an Environmental Engineer at Barr Engineering. Ling describes her work as “linking science to engineering.” She uses her joint training in basic science and engineering to make project decisions based on scientific principles and data. Her work involves bench testing and pilot testing, process modeling, and data analysis. She helps her colleagues in making decisions about what processes or technologies should be used, sizing of equipment, or use of chemicals.

Ling has a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from University of Colorado Boulder where she was co-advised in the areas of engineering and microbial ecology. Her work at Barr tends to be out-of-the-ordinary projects. Ling’s expertise is helpful in solving problems that are not well defined at the start. “I cannot take out a textbook and just design something because at first we don’t know what is needed. It’s really fun.”

It was a glimpse of water research going on at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory (SAFL) that turned her from her high-school aspiration to build things as a structural engineer. “One day in the first-year seminar, we toured the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory. It was that day on that tour that I decided I wanted to study water. I was excited about the scope of questions people were asking [at SAFL]. Then I took the water/wastewater course my sophomore year with Tim LaPara. That was the most interesting course I had taken—a blend of biology and chemistry and physics, all the sciences together and integrated. I found it really engaging and knew I wanted to pursue it.”

Ling started doing research as an undergraduate with Professor Tim LaPara. “We looked at microbial communities in Minnesota lakes. We traveled to some lakes in the Twin Cities once a week through the summer, and we made a trip up to the boundary waters—that was the only job I had where steering a canoe was a prerequisite! We did some molecular biology analyses to determine what the communities were and some data analysis to try to figure out how they differed both between the lakes and over time. That was really interesting, and got me started on research and led to my Ph.D. Tim has been a really great mentor.”


Ling’s Ph.D. research involved studying the microbial ecology of engineered systems. She learned a lot about the huge array of microbes that live on the earth, the vast array of things they do in the environment, and the variety of things they are used for in engineering. She becomes quite animated when she talks about microbes.

“There are microbes that can eat sulfur and microbes that can breathe with iron, and microbes that can live in radioactive environments, and microbes that can live at 120 degrees Celsius! There is so much diversity in terms of what microbes can do. We have leveraged some of that in engineered systems—wastewater treatment systems and many industrial processes use microbes. But the whole range of capacity in the microbial world is enormous—microbes in our guts, microbes involved with our food, microbes that help with all the ecosystems services we see, and microbes involved in agriculture. Microbes are often maligned because of their association with illness, but they drive so much of our everyday well-being. Microbes are just so cool. I am a huge microbe nerd!”

“I am a huge microbe nerd!”

Ling has renewed ties with the U since she returned to Minnesota after completing her Ph.D. Since then she has mentored Capstone teams and even returned to teach the water/wastewater course a few years ago.

Ling’s family has been involved with the department a long time. Her grandparents, Joseph and Rose Ling, immigrated to the US from China in the 1950s. Her grandfather, Joseph Ling, earned his Ph.D. in environmental engineering (then called sanitary engineering) here in 1952. Her grandmother was the first woman to earn a Master’s degree in chemical engineering from UMN. Together they established the Joseph and Rose Ling Professorship in Civil Engineering (held by William Arnold) and the Joseph and Rose Ling Chair in Environmental Engineering (held by Paige Novak). Many other family members have also attended UMN. The University is important to the Ling family perspective, and Ali Ling is happy to carry on those traditions.

“I love the department. It is such an outstanding set of faculty, especially in the environmental group—the way they collaborate with each other, the way they look out for students’ best interests, and their commitment to teaching. It is really cool to have them nearby and to see what they are achieving.”

Ling tries to keep up with the environmental research at the U and to build collaboration opportunities between University researchers and experts at Barr. Her hope is that bringing people together will get people talking and, over time, build collaborations to work on the needs she is seeing in industry.

It is easy to understand why colleagues would like to work with the calm and thoughtful Ling. She is super bright and easy to trust.

Ling is the newest and youngest member of the Advisory Board. Her first impression is that the department has been working to keep up to date and to develop the curriculum in a way that prepares students well. One effort was a survey of industry professionals asking what they think students need to be prepared and what they are perhaps not getting. “By being a little closer to student days, I hope I can bring a different perspective than other board members with more experience. I also work with and hire entry-level engineers, so can bring perspectives regarding their needs and any potential skill gaps.”

Ling believes that holistic decision making will be really important in the future of environmental engineering. “Trying to think about whole systems when making decisions on what projects to do or what regulations to pass. For example, in Minnesota we add a lot of chloride to the environment when we salt our roads. At certain concentrations chloride is toxic to fish; it is also expensive to remove from water. So once chloride gets into lakes and streams, it is very difficult to get it out. We should use that knowledge to make decisions about how to apply road salts in the first place.”

Another example Ling cites is water use. “The obvious holistic approach is thinking about water as a cycle, just like we teach in science class. We currently use potable water for a lot of things, put it down the drain, and then treat it before sending it back to the environment, and treat it again to make it potable before use. Holistic thinking would ask questions like: Can we reuse some of that water along the way? Can we treat it in a way that is more appropriate for it intended use?” Ling notes that answers to such questions will require collaboration and communication across engineering disciplines, and across cities, states, and industries. Environmental engineers then need to use all that collaboratively-gained information to make decisions.

Emergence of data as a primary driver for decisions is another trend Ling believes will shape the future of environmental engineering. Modern instrumentation makes it easy to collect a lot of data; engineers will need abilities to manage and interpret data and to help people make good decisions based on data. Ling expects that “all engineers will need to know programing and statistics; historically those skills have not been emphasized in engineering disciplines.”

Looking forward, Ling sees that the department needs to keep up with these trends but admits, “I’m not sure how to cover all that [in the curriculum]. Maybe everyone will need to get a Master’s at some point. I think today it is more important to learn how to learn than to learn specific information. Complex engineering problems are often poorly defined at the start, so you need to be able to learn and to adapt to the situations that you see. That is hard to teach. As an undergraduate, I was really good at getting stuff done. When I was in grad school doing research, I struggled to learn how to progress when I had no idea what to do. As you start doing more interesting work, there is no one there to tell you what to do or how to do it. We need engineers that can still problem solve and make progress when they don’t know exactly what to do.”

“Technology and processes will continue to change faster as we go on, and it will take more effort to keep up, both for the industry and on the part of the department.”


Ling’s Chinese heritage has always been important. In college, she studied Chinese and afterward traveled to Beijing for four months where she worked in an environmental engineering lab. She noted a few comparisons between Chinese and English laboratories.

“The wet chemistry was similar. In the Chinese lab, the equipment was, maybe, less fancy. The students were expected to work harder, and they did. The education culture is generally a little bit different in China. In general, the Chinese education system does not promote creative thinking as much as the American system. Creative thinking is such a big part of research. We all developed that skill in graduate school. Students who were able to go out on a limb and try things were able to be more successful.”

“All the students spoke English. So when I was working in the lab, I primarily spoke English with the grad student I was working with. We spoke a little bit in Chinese. I don’t understand all of it, but I tried to keep up. My adviser there taught a wastewater treatment course that I sat in on, that was all in Chinese. The first day I probably understood about 10 words. I listened for words that got repeated a lot and wrote those down. I went home and looked them up and learned them. By the end of the course, I understood maybe a third of what he said. I think a lot of second-language learners end up learning that way, just being in that environment.”

“The Chinese language is fascinating—the structure, the characters, the tones. It is artistic and musical. Living in China and being part of that culture was certainly overwhelming at times, but it was very rewarding for me to make connections there and to learn about this country where my grandparents were from.”