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Department of Geography

"I want to see things"

Huixuan Li's desire to see things brought her from the prairies of Inner Mongolia to South Carolina's salt marshes

There were some stops long the way, however. Her first stop in the US was at Auburn University, where she received a master's degree in geography, before coming to USC to work with the Department of Geography's Dr. Cuizhen (Susan) Wang on her Ph.D. Interested in issues of water quality, Huixuan's research focuses on using remote sensing and GIS techniques to investigate the health of the salt marsh ecosystems along the Carolina coast.

"Salt marsh dynamics are much more challenging for remote sensing," she says. Among other things, satellite images have to be taken at low tide to be useful, "otherwise the water will completely affect the reflection."

Huixuan has been combing the archives for satellite images — MODIS, SMAP, and, in particular, Landsat images — to look for marsh die-back events along the coast. She notes that there are Landsat images going back to 1997 that are of sufficient resolution to detect such events. The first die-back she has found was in 1998; the most recent in the summer of 2016 and associated with South Carolina's 2015 flood event.

But she's not just examining satellite images. Huixuan recently received the Vernberg Fellowship to help her do field surveys to validate her image classifications. On one field trip this summer — eager to check the marsh grasses more closely — she stepped out of the boat only to find herself thigh deep in the mud. Her advisor, Huixuan laughed, "had to pull me out like a giant carrot!"

Huixuan, who would like an academic career when she finishes her degree, already has some experience as an instructor for GEOG 105 (The Digital Earth). Her advice for students? "Be patient and be tenacious."

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