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GRI Employee Spotlight

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Fangni Lei, PH.D.

Title: Assistant Research Professor
Time at GRI: Since 2019
Hometown: Yichang, China

Q: What is your academic background?
I started studying Geographic Information Systems as an undergraduate in 2007. After taking several GIS and Remote Sensing courses, I found GIS to be very interesting and useful for the type of research I was involved in. I continued my studies in GIS and pursued both a master’s degree and a Doctor of Philosophy in GIS.

Q: What are your research interests?
My research interests focus on microwave soil moisture, hydrological modeling and data assimilation of hydraulic variables with numerical models. In particular, I work on retrieving surface soil moisture from satellite-based measurements to improve the spatial and temporal resolution of remote sensing soil moisture products and quantifying the error statistics of remotely sensed soil moisture for integration with hydrologic models via data assimilation. In addition, I am interested in examining the linkage between soil moisture and evapotranspiration in the land-atmosphere interface.

Q: Who inspired you to purse the career you have today?
Many people have helped and guided me throughout my research career. Dr. Huanfeng Shen, my master’s degree advisor was very supportive of my work and was the one who encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. and served as my Ph.D. advisor as well. Dr. Wade Crow from the USDA-ARS Hydrology and Remote Sensing Laboratory was a major influence in helping me learn to conduct research thoroughly and served as my mentor during my Ph.D. program. Since I started at GRI in 2019, Dr. Robert Moorhead has provided me with the support and resources needed to continue my research on a variety of projects.

“One thing most people don’t know about me is that I actually wanted to be a psychologist before I went to college, but it turns out I became an engineer instead.”

Q: What has been your favorite project while working at GRI?
Quantifying surface soil moisture at a global scale using Global Navigation Satellite System-Reflectometry (GNSS-R) satellite measurements via machine learning. This project involved several state-of-the-art techniques, including GNSS-R for retrieving soil moisture and utilization of machine learning. These were completely new research areas for me, but with collaboration of other GRI faculty such as Dr. Mehmet Kurum and Dr. Ali Gurbuz, this project has resulted in several journal papers, dozens of citations, and two global soil moisture products.

Q: What is the coolest thing you are working on right now?
Right now, I am mapping high-resolution root zone soil moisture at a 30-m spatial resolution to assist with vineyard irrigation practices. We are taking surface soil moisture information that is being acquired from radar remote sensing and evapotranspiration thermal infrared satellite sensors and integrating that with a soil vegetation atmosphere transfer model. This process allows us to map root zone soil moisture at a high-resolution continuously. We can provide this fine-scale soil moisture information to our end user, i.e., E&J Gallo Winery, in a near-real-time scheme. Providing root-zone water content to growers at this high level, not only helps improve irrigation management practices it also enhances water use efficiency, quality, and the economic value of grape harvests.

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Q: What is working at GRI like?
Working at GRI is great! There are ample resources for conducting cutting edge research, and the people here are very supportive and efficient. In addition, working at GRI provides lots of opportunities to collaborate with other faculty, which I really enjoy.

Q: What kinds of hobbies and interests do you have outside of work?
In my spare time, I enjoy reading, baking, and hiking.