Yaqi Wo

Acclimating to a new city (and country!) through community involvement

Yaqi Wo is a research chemist with PPG — global supplier of paints, coatings, optical products, and specialty materials. Born and raised in China, Yaqi moved to the U.S. to attend graduate school when she was 22, receiving her PhD in chemistry from the University of Michigan. In early 2017, she accepted her position with PPG and made the move to Pittsburgh, where she currently resides in Allison Park.

Tell us a little about your job. What do you like most about it?

I develop automotive paint, specifically the paint that protects the color layer of a car from weathering and sunlight. I work to develop the next generation of paint so it’s more environmentally friendly, easier to apply, makes the painting process more efficient, and lowers the paint’s baking temperature and drying time.

There is so much chemistry that goes into the paint on a car. The regulations are constantly changing, so we’re always trying to find new components that are within the regulations but still function as well, and I like the innovation that process requires. I love working at a big company like PPG because we have so many more resources than I had at the university level. I can innovate with a mindset that one day my product is going to make a difference. It’s very rewarding to feel I’m a part of something like that.

Have you enjoyed living in Pittsburgh?

I’ve really enjoyed living in Pittsburgh — it’s a very interesting city. It has so many different personalities based on the neighborhood. In every part of town, you find different things to appreciate and explore.

What are some things you like to do?

I like to travel. When I arrived in the U.S. as a PhD student, I saved most of my stipend and visited different places around the country. I’ve been to the Virgin Islands, Honolulu, Maui, Oregon, San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Florida, all the big cities on the East Coast, and Chicago. I liked the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone a lot — it was different from what I was used to in China. We have national parks in China, but we don’t have the same wildlife. I’d never seen elk or buffalo. I took my parents to Yellowstone, and it was really amazing the days that we camped there. There was so much wildlife to see that was new to me.

Are there any upcoming events you’re looking forward to?

There are two things through my work that I’m excited about. The first is Paint with a Purpose, where we try to connect people with paint beyond just everyday life. A segment recently aired on Good Morning America about our latest project called Paw Path, where we use specific paint and a special painting technique to keep the sidewalk cooler in the summer for dogs. The first Paw Path we created was in Austin, Texas, and we are hoping to create a similar path in Pittsburgh. Another thing I’m looking forward to are the Colorful Communities projects we do around Pittsburgh in partnership with United Way. United Way helps to identify the locations and coordinate the logistics, and volunteers go out into the city, such as chemists and engineers, and paint churches, middle schools, and all kinds of different buildings. We also paint the aquarium every year so that kids can see something new. I love that we use our PPG paint and do something good with it.

How did you connect with United Way?

Most of my work is in the laboratory, yet I want to take a chance to give back to the community and get involved when I have an opportunity. Thankfully United Way does a great job of engaging employees from PPG and other companies and it’s become a channel for me to learn where help is needed, and how I could volunteer in things and be useful.

What have you liked about United Way?

I like that they connect different parts of our society together. My first event was Build a Bike, which was really good. I liked being assigned a team and we built four bikes with the kids. We taught them how to use the tools to build the bike, how to wear a helmet, how to use hand signals and what rules to follow on the road. It was very gratifying. In China, I used to bike around to school, but here I have more of a cycling bike. I was able to teach the kids what I had to learn to cycle — how to wear my helmet and clip in my cycling shoes. I love going about my day knowing that a kid is out there riding the bike I helped them build and living a healthier lifestyle. I like thinking that they’re talking to their friends telling them that “someone from PPG helped me build a bike.” It’s just a feeling that makes me very happy.