World Oceans Day: female faculty member understanding our water world
Chris Edwards | 06/08/2019

World Oceans Day is an annual United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) observance day that highlights the many contributions of the ocean to human society, while recognizing the considerable challenges we face in maintaining the benefits that the oceans provide. This year, the theme for World Oceans Day is “Gender and the Ocean”, an opportunity to explore the gender dimension of humankind’s relationship with the ocean.

Here at Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), we wanted to talk to one of the female faculty members at the Department of Ocean Science and Engineering, to find out her perspective of the ocean, its importance, and how to encourage more young women to get involved in the marine sciences.

To that end, we spoke to Assistant Professor Xinxin Li. Having started her university education in chemistry, she found herself looking for a unique and different direction for her continued academic pursuit.

“Chemical engineering was very mature to some extent at the time, and medical chemistry had a long history. When I was looking at the different options, marine chemistry was very new to me and it was the area that was most interesting to me as a young student.”

After completing her chemistry degree at Qingdao University in 2005, Xinxin Li opted to stay in Qingdao and completed her Masters at the renowned Ocean University of China, focusing on marine chemistry and graduating in 2008. She then traveled to College Station in Texas to complete her Ph.D. at Texas A&M University majoring in chemical oceanography 2013. She is happy to be a highly-cited young scholar in this field, and this is one of her proudest achievements.

We asked Dr. Xinxin Li about the impact of Qingdao on her life. She freely admitted her love for the city, saying that it has great weather and she had considered working for the city in the past. However the opportunity to continue her academic career came up and she is here in Shenzhen now.

Dr. Li focuses on marine organic biogeochemistry. She uses isotopes and biomarkers to track the fate of different organic carbon in marine environment. This is important information for a broad range of scientists, due to the way that organic carbon is preserved in marine sediment eventually through the interactions between water and other environments. Part of the organic carbon comes from the atmosphere, in that the carbon is essentially photosynthesized and transported to the marine sediment. This creates a record over time of what is happening in the water, even in the upper atmosphere.

The information that can be delved from organic carbon biogeochemistry teaches scientists about nutrient levels throughout the entire water system and into the atmosphere, which can indicate eutrophication and low oxygen levels in the water. Such information is vital for explaining the interactions between different environments and the larger impacts of them.

Dr. Xinxin Li went on to explain that oceanographers know that the ocean and marine areas are vital to humans. They are a critical resource to humans and teach us so much about how climate change affects us. The ocean is also an enormous climate change dampener, absorbing huge amounts of temperature change that would otherwise make life on Earth far more challenging.

She also pointed out that oceanographers actually cover a broad range of issues, not just the water that makes up the ocean. Dr. Li pointed out that she does not solely study the ocean water itself, that she has to understand how the ocean interacts with other ecosystems such as continental land, the atmosphere, marine sediment in order to fundamentally understand what roles are the ocean playing on earth..

We asked Dr. Xinxin Li about what SUSTech had done for her academic career. With a smile, she said that SUSTech, even the city of Shenzhen had provided a lot of support for both her academic career and for young female scientists in general. Good and creative ideas could be acted on for researchers, and there were few restrictions on potential avenues for research.

The Department of Ocean Science and Engineering at SUSTech is a young department in a young university. Since its establishment in July 2015, the Department of Ocean Science and Engineering has gathered the strengths of scientific research across the globe in its commitment to achieving breakthrough scientific results in major international marine science or engineering issues. It aims to become an internationally renowned marine science and engineering research base that trains high-level talents. It has a clear goal to recruit top scientific talents from around the world in order to develop into a world-class oceanographic department, in line with institutes like Woods Hole, Scripps and the National Oceanography Center.

Dr. Li acknowledged that the Department is working hard on having its own research vessel. Undergraduate students regularly take part in environmental protection activities in line with an overarching theme for oceanographic efforts. Further to that, the Department of Ocean Science and Engineering is heavily involved in the popularization of science work of SUSTech, talking to students at the Experimental Education Group schools. She laughed about her involvement in this activity, admitting that she struggled to properly communicate with the children at first.

“The children are far more active than the students I normally teach. They always raise their hands and ask questions. After the first lesson, I thought about the class I gave. I had to go back to when I was a child and when I was young. What was I thinking about when I was a kid? This way of thinking encouraged me to change my strategy, and I believe the children enjoyed my classes far more.”

Honing in on the theme of World Oceans Day, we asked how to get more women into marine science and engineering. Dr. Li believes that while there are many female scientists in the field, their representation drops away at the top levels – a comment reflected by Professor Jana Hertz from the Department of Mathematics. While she does not claim to have the solutions, one point she did raise was a comment by Associate Director Yan Zheng from the Office of Research. Dr. Li recalled being told that as a female scientist, she had to work three times harder than the male scientists to be recognized by society.

Reflecting on the undergraduate students cleaning up the beach and coral reef, we asked Dr. Xinxin Li to comment on the recent announcement of plastic found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. While she admitted that she had not involved any plastic in her research yet, other researchers had experienced problems. Xinxin Li did point out that plastic bags would disturb normal sediment accumulation, and did have the potential to cause problems in her research further down the line, so it was an area that she would have to consider.

It is clear that the Department of Ocean Science and Engineering has found an excellent young scholar in Assistant Professor Xinxin Li. Well spoken and clear in her explanations, Xinxin Li is a new and welcome addition to the SUSTech community, and will surely provide a unique interdisciplinary perspective for years to come.

Additional sources:

World Oceans Day – https://www.worldoceansday.org/

UN World Oceans Day – https://www.unworldoceansday.org/

2019, 06-08
By Chris Edwards

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Our Female Faculty

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Translated and Adapted By SUSTech Newshub

Proofread ByXia Yingying

Photo ByDepartment of Ocean Science and Engineering

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