Luoye Chen’s passion for helping the world become a better place has always been a motivation for his work. 

After attending Peking University in China for six years, Chen obtained two bachelor’s degrees — one in Public Policy and another in Economics. This drive to better understand how he could best improve the world for all encouraged Chen to get a master’s degree in applied economics before coming to the University of Illinois.

Working through data-driven educational programs prepared Chen for his professional research experience with CABBI. As Chen enters into his third year of his Ph.D. in Applied Economics, a huge portion of his work includes “collecting and cleaning up large amounts of economic data.” 

From agro-environmental policy analysis to the production analysis of biofuels — like perennial grasses — Chen’s research within CABBI’s Sustainability theme ranges over several topics. Chen works primarily on two different ventures: a biofuel study and a marginal land project. 

Chen at his workspace in the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB).

The biofuel study deals with “assessing the economic viability of converting land in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to bioenergy crop production, while also looking at how it contributes to biomass production,” Chen said. 

“The goal is to displace foreign oil by harvesting bioenergy crops such as miscanthus and switchgrass, while maintaining, or enhancing, ecosystem service. We also want to lower the maintenance costs for the government.”

For the marginal land project, Chen, working on Principal Investigator Madhu Khanna’s team, examines the extent of land-use change from cropland to non-cropland, or vice versa. 

Team members also investigate how conversion can be attributed to elements such as “climate conditions, biophysical conditions, and socioeconomic factors like food and oil prices, ethanol production, and crop insurance,” he said.

Although Chen does most of his data analysis individually, he remains very involved with the rest of the CABBI team.

“My typical day includes several parts of work,” Chen said. “Since I’m working on several research projects at the same time, I may have more than one research group meeting with the other graduate students, or scholars, a day.”  

This love for multitasking is what has shaped Chen’s multidimensional research approach. His work includes more social aspects of sustainability around bioenergy, while also examining the economic and environmental. Chen conducts work “researching determinants and dynamic implications of land-use change in the U.S.,” he explained, which he does through creating a myriad of economic models.

“My research includes two kinds of methodology: empirical and optimization. For empirical studies, I need to collect and analyze a large amount of economic data,” he said. “Whereas for optimization, I usually do some coding jobs and validate the numerical model based on the observed market conditions in reality.”

Chen’s research is interconnected with scientists across campus and beyond.

“I work with many people,” he said. “Some of them are from our group, but others are from different departments, or even universities. All depending on the project that I’m currently involved with.”

This opportunity to work both inside and outside the U of I environment has allowed Chen to get to know people from a variety of different backgrounds.

“I really enjoy working with other people,” he said. “We usually share sophisticated data sets, techniques, or methods with one another. All of this helps provide a different viewpoint or aspect of the problem, which inspires great research.”

Chen splits his time between the fields, where data is collected, and at his computer running analyses.

As Chen continues to pursue his doctoral degree, his research continues to develop. He reflected on some of his biggest achievements so far.

“I wouldn’t call it a ‘milestone,’ but overall I’m gaining a clearer understanding of my work,” he said. “Particularly for my dissertation proposal, and even future research plans. All of my work continues to expand my understanding of the subject.”

Along with this clearer understanding of the economics behind agricultural production, Chen’s work is slowly generating a lot of writing. As of late, Chen is producing several manuscripts based on the team’s research results. In the near future, they will be submitted to academic journals.

What continues to excite Chen about the work he does is the applicability of all his research. Ensuring that high-quality research is coupled with real-world implications is the key to guaranteeing that the work has policy-oriented significance.

Looking to the future, Chen wants to focus on the recent changes in U.S. land use. These types of projects involve “high-resolution satellite data, advanced machine-learning models, and causal inference methods.”All elements that are complicated to come by.

Even though Chen spends most of his time in the world of data analysis, his biggest motivation has always been, and continues to be, this drive to help people.

“As an applied economist, I really care about how my research will help people in the real world,” he said. “All these projects have strong policy implications for stakeholders in the U.S. They also affect other policy designers around the world.”

Although he’s incredibly dedicated to his work, Chen’s daily life isn’t all about data and models. He enjoys going outside and swimming, hiking, and playing badminton.

“I’m really interested in cooking, not just Chinese food, but all kinds. I’m also a super huge Marvel fan.” he said.

Which makes sense, because in a way, Chen is saving the world with more sustainability in agriculture.

— Article by Taylor Jennings, iSEE Communications Intern; photos by Jordan Goebig, iSEE Communications Specialist