30 Jan 2024

SmartSat PhD student returns from MIT Senseable City Lab to build a better world through geospatial engineering

30 Jan 2024

SmartSat PhD student Chang Liu is starting 2024 with a goal to make the world a better place by leveraging her passion for civil and geospatial engineering following her return from studying at one of the world’s foremost digital laboratories.

Last year, Chang was accepted as a Visiting Student at the internationally renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Senseable City Lab. The Senseable City Lab is a research initiative of MIT that uses data from a diverse set of sources, including satellite imagery and remote sensing data, to monitor and study the many aspects of urban environments, including air quality, weather, traffic patterns and road quality. The opportunity to study at this world-class institution was invaluable for Chang, whose research is focused on developing a deep learning classification model to assess building damage following natural disasters.

Chang Liu presenting her research at the Senseable City Lab
Chang Liu presenting at a recent conference on her work in geospatial engineering

Reflecting on her time at the Senseable City Lab, Chang is keen to take her experience and use it to make a tangible impact on the way we manage the aftermath of natural disaster here in Australia…and beyond!

What made you want to pursue a PhD in Surveying and Geospatial Engineering?

I developed a passion for engineering during high school and established a clear objective of pursuing a PhD during my undergraduate studies. I had a keen interest in mathematics throughout high school and had a strong performance in geometry. Studying at university enhanced my enthusiasm for geospatial information and engineering. The Taste of Research program I undertook during my undergraduate studies only enhanced my decision to pursue my lifelong passion in the realm of Surveying and Geospatial Engineering.

What study and/or career opportunities did you see for yourself upon taking the opportunity at MIT’s Senseable City Lab?

The cutting-edge research environment at Senseable City Lab allowed me to delve deep into those more advanced topics in my field. Additionally, the extensive network of renowned faculty at MIT opened the door to collaboration. MIT provided several in-person workshops during my study, so I had a chance to gain valuable knowledge from presenters. In terms of my career, MIT’s strong ties with industry partners often lead to exclusive job postings, giving me access to a wider range of career options following the completion of my studies. This experience not only enriched my academic journey but also positioned me well for career advancement in the technology sector.

What did you hope to achieve during your time at Senseable City Lab?

Before I left for the US, I made a list of what I wanted to achieve during my study there. Firstly, I wanted to build a professional network with individuals in the US, since academia knows no borders and establishing connections with people from other countries could be incredibly beneficial. Additionally, I hoped to learn more about geospatial data other than remote sensing, such as geographic information science (GIS) and social science. My goal was to bridge my knowledge gap between remote sensing and other geoscience knowledge, preparing myself for future challenges in my chosen career path. Moreover, I wanted to collaborate with other researchers at MIT Senseable City Lab.

Your PhD is in building damage estimation after natural disaster using multi-satellite source data based on machine learning. How did your time at Senseable City Lab impact this research?

Senseable City Lab’s ongoing research always has to have a global perspective, so this inspired me to expand my case study area to encompass a more global environment. As well that, MIT has published numerous articles on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and is home to many world-famous AI researchers. Being in that environment allowed me to quickly acquaint myself with state-of-the-art AI techniques that will be increasingly valuable in my research.

Out of everything that you learned during your time at the Senseable City Lab, what was the best or most valuable bit of knowledge you picked up?

I learnt so many meaningful things! I learnt so much related to my research through SmartSat, such as emerging AI-based methods, GIS analysis methods and Lidar operations. I also learnt valuable presentation skills. The team had weekly lab meetings to discuss our various projects, and everyone had a chance to present on their progress, which was great practice for me.

The best thing about my time, however, was the collaborative and innovative environment that fostered my creativity and pushed the boundaries of my research. Working alongside so many brilliant minds and having access to so many different resources allowed me to explore new and novel ideas and approaches. The open culture of knowledge sharing and interdisciplinary collaboration was instrumental in broadening my perspective and enhancing the quality of my work.

What do you think Australia’s burgeoning space industry could learn from the US’s more establish space sector?

Many US-based space companies and government departments offer internships or part-time positions to local students, helping them gain insights into the industry beyond their university coursework. I think it’s worth discussing the feasibility of implementing similar initiatives in Australia’s space industry.

Now that you are back down under, what do you hope will be the outcome of your research upon completion of your PhD?

I hope to achieve meaningful outcomes that benefit the entire world, saving lives and enhancing the quality and safety of human existence. My aim is to develop practical applications for my research that can contribute to solutions for real-world challenges. I also want to have the opportunity to publish my findings in reputable journals, to present novel insights that can advance existing knowledge in the field.

What aspirations do you have for your career moving forward?

Moving forward in my academic career, I would like to engage in meaningful work and research that is of real benefit to the world. I aspire to take on increasingly challenging roles that will allow me to apply and expand my expertise in Surveying and Geospatial Engineering, especially remote sensing. I aim to lead and contribute to impactful projects that make a positive difference in academia. Ultimately, I envision myself in a leadership position where I can inspire and mentor others while contributing to the advancement of the field through innovative solutions and strategic decision-making.

Chang Liu is a SmartSat PhD student of Surveying and Geospatial Engineering at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney. She holds a Bachelor of Civil Engineering from the University of Science & Technology, Beijing, and a Master of Philosophy in Built Environment from the University of New South Wales Sydney.