Tiff Wei: Analyzing Satellite Data to Understand Ecosystems

10/12 Pratt School of Engineering

As a Pratt Fellow, Tiff Wei learned how to conduct independent research with mentorship from Dr. Ana Barros and Duke graduate students.

Tiff Wei and their partner, Shelly Guo, in front of Tiff’s poster, entitled, “Prospects for Long-Term Agriculture in Southern Africa: An Exploratory Analysis of Land-Atmosphere Dynamics in the Miombo Ecosystem Using Fractal Methods and AI Algorithms” at the American Meteorological Society’s 19th Annual Student Conference in Boston, MA.
Tiff Wei: Analyzing Satellite Data to Understand Ecosystems
  • Major: Environmental Engineering
  • Advisor: Ana P. Barros, the Edmund T. Pratt, Jr. School Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Pratt Research Fellow Project: Prospects for Agriculture in Southern Africa: A Joint, Multi-Sensor Analysis of Land-Atmosphere Dynamics in the Upper Zambezi River Basin

When did you decide that you wanted to be an engineer?

I didn’t really start to think about exactly what I wanted to do as a career—or even as a major—until high school. I knew that I was always really interested in design and art, and in trying to figure out a way to apply everything that I was learning. I felt pretty early on, around my junior year in high school, that I really wanted to do engineering because of the design component and because I could apply what I was learning in my math and science classes to the real world, specifically in engineering for the public.

I took an AP Environmental Science class as a junior in high school, and I really loved going out into the wetland behind my school to collect field data and understand the impact of human activities on the environment. That’s what drew me to environmental engineering out of all the other engineering majors at Duke—I loved learning more about how people can incorporate more sustainable practices in their engineering design.

Why did you choose to work with Ana Barros?  

I first started working with Dr. Barros because there was a guest lecturer in my first-year Intro to Environmental Engineering course sharing her research about land-atmosphere dynamics, and she offered to talk to us about research opportunities at Duke. I reached out to her after class, and she walked me through how best to contact professors about joining their labs.

The guest lecturer, Dr. Lauren Lowman, also happened to be one of Dr. Barros’s PhD students at the time. And, she ended up mentoring me through contacting professors about research opportunities and establishing good research habits.

Lauren and I ended up publishing a paper together in my sophomore year, and I really appreciated the mentorship I received from Dr. Barros and other members of the group. Dr. Barros recommended that I apply to the Pratt Research Fellows program in my junior year to start an independent project that expanded on my previous work.

What kinds of projects are you working on?

Dr. Barros’s group does a lot of work with remote sensing, which involves using radar and satellite measurements to quantify physical variables on Earth, such as snowpack density, precipitation, land surface temperature, cloud properties, and more. I’m examining the Upper Zambezi River Basin in southern Africa, which is located within the miombo ecosystem.

This ecosystem contains tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas and shrublands, and covers a wide transition zone between the rainforest at the equator and the semi-arid woodlands of the southern portion of the continent. Tens of millions of people rely on this ecosystem for commercial farming, wildlife conservation, tourism and small-scale agriculture, which gives the region globally significant potential as either a carbon source or a carbon sink. I’m hoping to understand some of the complex interactions that are going on between land use and land cover change, in addition to climate change.

The way that I’m doing that is by looking at four different kinds of satellite products. One of them, surface albedo, is a measure of the fraction of incoming solar radiation that drives the land surface energy balance. And then, another three—leaf area index, fractional vegetation cover, and solar-induced chlorophyll fluorescence—are more related to the biophysical properties and photosynthetic machinery of vegetation.

I’m hoping that by analyzing these five datasets, I can gain a better understanding of the heat and moisture exchanges at the surface, how that relates to changes in precipitation and climate change on the broader scale, and what that means for agriculture in that region.

What have you found to be most valuable about the Pratt Research Fellows Program?

I’ve really loved getting to know a lot of the professors and the graduate students and postdoc students that I’ve met. I think it really helps in understanding the dynamics of a research group and what it’s like to do intensive research in a graduate program.

I would definitely recommend the program for anybody who’s interested in that. Also, if you want to get more experience doing research at a higher level, I think there’s so much that you can learn— not just the time management and organization skills, but also how to communicate your research and your work to other people and how to collaborate in academic settings.

Honestly, I think one of the biggest takeaways that I’ve taken from Pratt Fellows is just understanding how to conduct research somewhat independently, with really great mentorship from Dr. Barros and other grad students. Just being able to hold myself accountable for work and also learning how to manage my time properly are some really important things I’ve taken away from all of this.

Pratt Research Fellows