ASU geography professor wins NSF mid-career award

Research aims to improve understanding of changing Arctic landscapes with geospatial artificial intelligence

September 9, 2021

Wenwen Li, professor in Arizona State University's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and affiliate faculty member of ASU’s Spatial Analysis Research Center, was selected as a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Mid-Career Advancement (MCA) award. 

The MCA award is the only cross-disciplined, career-oriented award that aims to protect the time and resources of mid-career scholars, enabling applicants the opportunity to concentrate on research and training while building synergistic and mutually beneficial partnerships.  Wenwen Li, professor in the ASU School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. Download Full Image

“I am super excited and humbled to receive this Mid-Career Advancement award from NSF. In preparation of the proposal, I have received tremendous support from many of my ASU colleagues, and I cannot thank them enough,” said Li, who specializes in spatial analysis and using cyberinfrastructure and artificial intelligence to explore new questions about the geographic world. “I am viewing this award not only as an opportunity to advance my own career, but also a good timing to return my service back to the community to help junior and other mid-career scholars to boost their careers, increase visibility, develop leadership to achieve amazing success and happiness.” 

The award will support Li’s research that explores new ways of integrating artificial intelligence, geospatial analysis and cyberinfrastructure into Arctic permafrost research. 

In partnership with Anna Liljedahl, an Arctic permafrost hydrology expert from Woodwell Climate Research Center, Li aims to develop novel GeoAI (geospatial artificial intelligence) solutions to enable automated, high-resolution mapping and the quantification of permafrost thaw at a pan-Arctic scale. 

“Polar regions play a vital role in Earth’s climate, ecosystems and economy. Unfortunately, climate change is driving dramatic changes in the Arctic ecosystem, endangering its natural environment, infrastructure and lives,” Li said. “Arctic permafrost, ground that remains below 0 degrees Celsius for at least two consecutive summers, is at the center of this change.” 

By developing new GeoAI solutions, Li and Liljedahl hope to create a high-resolution dataset that quantifies permafrost thaw and helps scientists gain a better understanding and accurate prediction of the landscape changes in the Arctic.

Additionally, the research pair will co-create an initiative called “Women in Polar Cyberinfrastructure” to diversify the field of cyberinfrastructure, AI and Arctic science by offering training to more female scholars and underrepresented minorities.

“I have always had a great interest in applying data science methods to solve environmental problems, especially those endangering the polar regions,” Li said. “This award focuses exactly on career advancement in polar data science; it offers an exciting opportunity for me to build a large collaboration network with Arctic scientists to broaden and deepen the applications of various computational solutions that my team has developed for better problem solving in the Arctic.”

David Rozul

Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


How engineering grads get their dream jobs

Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Career Center cultivates relationships with industry, offering opportunities to prepare students for top tech careers

September 9, 2021

For someone who grew up playing Xbox, working for Microsoft Devices — the team behind that gaming console and many other devices people use every day — is the definition of a dream job. And it could be your dream job, if you’re an engineering major in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

Such high-profile jobs may seem out of reach for some, but they’re not impossible to get — and companies like Microsoft are always looking for new, highly qualified talent. Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington. The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Career Center at Arizona State University works closely with high-profile companies, including Microsoft, to build relationships and invest in the future of a diverse engineering and technology workforce. Through these partnerships and extracurricular opportunities, Fulton Schools graduates are preparing for top tech jobs. Photo courtesy of vladdon/ Download Full Image

Fulton Schools students and graduates stand out among the competition for several key reasons: among them, the Fulton Schools Career Center’s extensive resources and relationships with Microsoft and other high-profile companies, and the opportunities at the Fulton Schools designed to help students to build their skills and passion for engineering.

“I’m not aware of any other engineering career centers with collaborations to the degree and volume we have,” said Robin Hammond, director of career services in the Fulton Schools. “The opportunities and mechanisms for students and employers to connect are more than just in the career center; they’re a culture in the Fulton Schools.”

This environment has led to success for many Fulton Schools graduates, including several alumni who now have what they consider to be their dream jobs at Microsoft Devices.

Networking and relationship-building for rewarding careers

​A shared commitment to diversity and innovation has driven the relationship between ASU and Microsoft Devices.

“We’re investing in each other, and students are an extension of that relationship and investment,” Hammond said. “They want to see our students succeed as much as we do, and that’s what makes this special.”

Many big-name companies regularly connect with students in a variety of ways outside of traditional career fairs.

Working engineers and technologists as well as recruiters host information sessions and informal coffee chats to help get conversations going between professionals, alumni and students. They also conduct resume reviews, get involved in the classroom, attend student organization meetings and judge competitions. 

Mary Byron, an electrical engineering alumna, works as a Microsoft Ambassador.

Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering electrical engineering alumna Mary Byron worked at Microsoft marketing events as a Microsoft Ambassador while she was an undergraduate student. Photo courtesy of Mary Byron

Mary Byron, a Fulton Schools electrical engineering alumna who graduated in December 2018, is a product engineer for Xbox at Microsoft Devices and has also worked for Microsoft’s radio frequency development team.

As a student, Byron attended coffee chats, a session with Microsoft Devices at a meeting of the ASU section of the Society of Women Engineers and other career events where she asked many questions so recruiters would remember her.

“I believe persistence and familiarizing myself with the ones doing the recruiting helped me through the pipeline,” Byron said.

The key for students to get involved in the university-industry employer relationship is Handshake, a platform that brings together students, alumni and employers.

Employers often go straight to Handshake to post information sessions, interviews, internships, job opportunities and more. There, they can connect with students directly. So Hammond recommends students regularly check Handshake to seek out opportunities to learn about employers and go talk to them.

Gaining experiences through getting involved

While showing up to industry-hosted events is important, there’s a lot of legwork students need to do on their own to make themselves stand out to employers, Hammond said.

“It’s critical to think outside of the standard curriculum and about the ways in which you can grow your skills and your technical knowledge,” she said.

Richard Rigby, an electrical engineering alumnus, poses in front of a Microsoft sign.

Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering electrical engineering alumnus Richard Rigby poses by a Microsoft sign at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Photo courtesy of Richard Rigby

Richard Rigby graduated in December 2020 with an electrical engineering bachelor’s degree. He’s now an electrical engineer at Microsoft Devices working on the Surface Book and Laptop team where he designs schematics, facilitates layout design and debugs circuit boards in current and future Surface devices.

Rigby took advantage of Fulton Difference opportunities as a student, but in hindsight, he believes he could have stood out more if he had been more involved in an engineering club.

“Engineering clubs where you work with a team on a big project through multiple semesters is probably some of the best experience you can get as a student,” Rigby said. “Not only do you get relevant technical skills, but you also get new, exciting projects that you can put on your resume and brag about in your interviews.”

Becoming adept in a particular field can be accomplished in many ways: doing independent or group projects outside of school requirements, reading books on the topic, joining working groups on Facebook or LinkedIn. Sometimes students may need to figure out their “why” — the reason students really want the type of job they want — so students should get curious and explore. The key to success here, Hammond says, is to do it because you love your field of study and you have a passion that will make an impression on employers.

That’s where the Fulton Difference comes in. This guiding principle of the Fulton Schools partly focuses on fostering success beyond the classroom through extracurricular activities to enhance students’ experiences and skill-building.

Researching careers and companies

Students should also spend time learning about companies before meeting with their representatives. This helps students see how their passion aligns with the company’s vision.

One of the most important things a student can do, Hammond says, is conduct research about a company. Much of this is individual work, looking into products and services, how the company functions and even investment reports. Together, this information can provide the same sort of knowledge a first-day employee would have.

“Understanding the company from a first-day employee mindset helps you walk into an interview with more information about the organization, more confidence and the ability to ask questions about the company’s vision statement and goals and their plan to get to the next level,” Hammond said. “You’re connecting with them as a potential future teammate, and that shows a maturity, an awareness and how you are making the same type of investment in this process that they’re putting in you.”

Altogether, cultivating a passion for engineering, gaining experiences and knowing a company at the level of a new employee will set students apart.

“If you have that passion and share it with a first-day employee mindset, those things come together and will propel you to the next level,” Hammond said.

Samuel Perez Diarte is fascinated by the inner workings of electronics. The May 2018 electrical engineering graduate explored this field as an undergraduate student through a variety of activities outside the classroom. He found an internship opportunity with Microsoft Devices that aligned with his goals, which contributed to him landing his current job.

“I realized that this was what I wanted to do when I got to travel to China and take devices apart for investigations,” said Perez Diarte, who also earned a minor in business. “I’ve always loved taking things apart for fun just to try to figure out how things work, but now I was getting paid for it.”

Electrical engineering alumnus Samuel Perez Diarte attends a Microsoft Devices team event.

Samuel Perez Diarte, an Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering electrical engineering alumnus, attends a Microsoft Devices celebration event in September 2019. Photo courtesy of Samuel Perez Diarte

Putting it all together with the Fulton Schools Career Center

From first-year students to alumni, the Fulton Schools Career Center has resources to help navigate the entire career planning process.

The Fulton Schools Career Center helped Rigby prepare through resume reviews with the peer career coaches — other Fulton Schools students who are trained to help with career readiness. Rigby was a peer career coach too, so he knew the value of such a resource.

“I cannot express how dramatic a transformation my resume went through getting so many trained eyes on it,” Rigby said. “They had a sample resume that was created from feedback from top industry professionals, which was extremely helpful for formatting references and seeing what content my resume was missing.”

The peer career coaches also helped him make effective LinkedIn and Handshake profiles for networking and reiterated the importance of attending company recruiting events, which got him in the door at Microsoft Devices.

He encourages current Fulton Schools students to make time for an appointment at the career center.

“The most challenging aspect of the internship and job search is knowing where to start,” Rigby said, "especially with all the stress of homework and exams on an engineering student’s mind. You will gain a lot of clarity about your next steps, and you’ll have a new resource for asking career questions any time.”

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering