UCSB’s Earth Research Institute has been measuring changes in cloud formations, land masses and ocean currents for years, but now the organization is collaborating with the State Key Laboratory of Remote Sensing Science in Beijing, China to share its specialized research practices in geography.

The new partnership comes as the State Key Laboratory, which works with departments from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Beijing Normal University, has selected a new director that also happens to be a UCSB alum. Jiancheng Shi, who obtained his master’s and doctoral degree in geography at UCSB, is a former ERI researcher and is now bringing his knowledge from the UCSB institute to the frontlines of geography research in China.

The ERI studies erosion, changes in the earth’s surface and interior, rock formation and the scientific processes behind glaciers and snow, while performing these studies through a process called remote sensing. During this process, researchers come to understand geographical patterns on a small scale and then apply their findings to larger regions.

“We study how things evolve on the planet, both on the land and in the oceans,” David Siegel, director of the ERI, said. With the new relationship between the ERI and China’s State Key Laboratory, Siegel said he plans to help Shi transform the operations of the Chinese lab to make these practices more appealing to the Western demographic that the lab works with.

“They want to improve how their science is seen by the Western world,” Siegel said. “His lab has many more people than we have here, and we are looking to help them do science as well as they can.”

Currently, the Chinese lab makes use of satellites and similar technologies to study the Earth, but Siegel said these technologies will soon change as a consequence of the partnership.

“The way they were organized before was based on how instruments in space would work … but that’s not doing science, that’s doing engineering,” Siegel said. “By having labs organized by science functions, you have more impact.”

However, the partnership is not entirely for the benefit of the State Key Laboratory. UCSB postdoctoral researchers and students in the geography department will have the opportunity to work with a lab other than the ERI, and the ERI itself will gain access to field sites in the Himalayas and Tibet — some of the most tectonically active places in the world. Furthermore, the partnership is the only collaboration the ERI has ever had with another lab.

“It’s the first time that we’ve done this — that we’ve made a formal agreement with any group at all,” Siegel said.


A version of this story appeared on page 6 of Wednesday, January 8, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.