Research statement

My research focuses on applying geospatial analysis and modeling approaches to study land systems in the context of global change. The overarching goal is to solve urgent sustainability issues associated with land use changes. To accomplish this goal, I break down my research into small tasks, such as enhancing the resilience of small farming households to climate change, and reducing local environmental impacts caused by the global food trade. In my research, I use novel geo-simulation (e.g., agent-based model, computational models that simulate bottom-up land use changes made by human land use decision makers) as a hub, facilitated by spatio-temporal analysis to simulate different human agents (e.g., smallholder farmers, agricultural enterprises, government officials) interacting with different environments (e.g., the fast-changing Amazon delta, Brazilian savannah–Cerrado, and China’s Mollisols Region). This statement outlines my doctoral and postdoctoral research, my collaboration with international teams, and my future research plan.

(1)  Doctoral work

My doctoral research focused on three related topics linked together by the cutting-edge agent-based modeling approach: (a) Scholars have discussed different household characteristics contribute to smallholders’ poverty and dependence on government assistance. However, by analysing household survey data within the sustainable livelihood framework, we found out that households land use and livelihood strategies were an important determinant of the dependence levels. Our findings identified new pathways for poverty alleviation that would be of interest to policy-makers. (b) Methodologically, most agent-based models (ABMs) only have a single decision-making process for each household. Supported by our empirical evidence, I developed an ABM that ensembles different decision-making strategies, and used global sensitivity analysis to test factors that are important across different strategies. (c) Theoretically, this innovative model was used to simulate households’ adaptive capacity to different risk scenarios. This work represents a pioneering simulation based on exploration of the concept of development resilience. The first of these topics was outlined in an article published in Human Ecology that discusses patterns of livelihood dependence on government cash transfers and how to reduce this dependence (e.g., by increasing livelihood diversity) as well as an article on Sustainability Science, while others are in preparation to submit to journals that include World Development.

(2)  Postdoctoral work

As a research leader in my current postdoc project, I am constructing the-first-of-its-kind ABM that can represent the land use changes between distant places (i.e., a distantly connected soybean production area in Brazil and a trading area in China). I have designed and implemented two distinct data-collecting protocols (e.g., a large scale household survey and fuzzy cognitive mental models) to explore local and regional land use changes and possible drivers in our study sites in Brazil and China. Three peer-reviewed publications have already been completed during the research process. In one of the publications, I compared the deforestation patterns from remote sensing images in two neighboring biomes to show the largely overlooked leakage to one biome (Cerrado, Brazilian savannah) from a conservation action in the other biome (Amazon). I’m also coupling the two ABMs over distance by integrating them with a popular partial-equilibrium trade model. This telecoupled-ABM is a pioneering model and aims to show that the first law of geography may not explain everything: the land use changes in China are affected by land use changes in Brazil. Finally, the simulation results will be disseminated with a Web GIS (e.g., ESRI’s story map), for academic and stakeholder engagement. In short, I have applied a variety of GIS, modeling, and analytical methods when successfully solving social and environmental issues.

(3)  International collaboration

Beyond using GIS and spatial analysis, my academic strength also aligns in bridging transdisciplinary concepts and overcoming the unexpected difficulties of fieldwork. Partnerships with research institutes and local stakeholders have helped me overcome numerous research and fieldwork challenges. I have collaborated with international teams from multiple disciplines, including the International Development Research Centre (IDRC, Canada), Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation), and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS).  For example, partnering with the Universidade Federal do Pará, I managed to survey 635 households across 60 communities in Abaetetuba, Brazil. Despite not being fluent in Portuguese, I worked with local people and students who speak the language to conduct the survey. In the summers of 2016 and 2017, I led a team of 12 graduate students (including two non-Chinese speaking students) and travelled across more than 40 counties in Heilongjiang, a northeastern province of China. We interviewed over 1,300 farming households and collected more than 200 soil samples and bird counts to study the local environmental impacts from the global soybean trade.