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Dr. Yao Li and his faculty advisor Dr. Huilin Gao
Dr. Yao Li (left) accepts the Association of Former Students’ 2021 Distinguished Graduate Student Award in Research with his faculty advisor Dr. Huilin Gao. | Image: The Association of Former Students

Dr. Yao Li, a postdoctoral researcher in the Zachry Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Texas A&M University, was awarded the Association of Former Students' 2021 Distinguished Graduate Student Award for Excellence for research.

Li's research focuses on using remote sensing technology to solve pressing water-related issues from local to global scales. He uses satellite data to generate 3D maps to measure the depth of global water reservoirs and then monitors their storage variations from the 1980s to current time.

"When I was an undergraduate student, I developed a passion for satellite remote sensing and learned a great deal about the theories and principles," he said. "I became even more motivated about using remote sensing technology to solve pressing water-related issues."

Li received his doctoral degree from the department in August 2020 and has continued as a postdoctoral researcher under advisor Dr. Huilin Gao, associate professor in the department.

Impressed by Li's academic and research background, Gao recruited him into the graduate water resources engineering program.

"Yao is an active learner and a devoted researcher with a high level of initiative," she said. "He is among the very few people I have met who seize upon every opportunity to conduct impactful research."

During his time at Texas A&M, Li has authored or co-authored 16 peer-reviewed journal papers, given 18 national and international presentations, written a book chapter and created an algorithm report for NASA. During the summer of 2019, Li applied for NASA's Ocean Optics program and was selected as one of 29 trainees worldwide from 16 countries. Li is now involved in an X-Grant project to develop a small satellite mission to track the global movement of water, carbon and sediment across landscapes.

"Yao developed a global reservoir 3D bathymetry database, which serves as one of the most important parameter inputs for NASA's Global Water Reservoir Product," Gao said. "This database can also be used to parameterize various global hydrological models, whose water management simulations have traditionally been hampered by the limited availability of reservoir information."

Li credits Gao with giving him guidance and encouragement through his doctoral program and beyond.

"I wholeheartedly appreciate the freedom she gave me to do the research I am interested in," he said. "I couldn't have achieved this without her."

Li also thanked his wife and parents for their support and love and said the award was a gift to his newborn daughter, Grace Li.

Following his postdoc work at Texas A&M, Li plans to find a faculty position and continue his research in water resources-related studies.