Zhiying Li
Using hydrological modeling techniques she created, Zhiying Li is able to predict how water volume may change over decades in several hundred US watersheds. (Credit: Courtesy of Zhiying Li)

Editor’s Note: Zhiying Li is a winner of The Story Exchange’s first annual Women In Science Incentive Prize.

Growing up in southeast China, Zhiying Li spent her early school years in a cramped classroom with her face buried in books. Outside of school, Li was captivated by the spectacular, mountainous terrain of her hometown in Guangxi, an autonomous region not far from the Vietnam border, where limestone pinnacles rise dramatically amid rushing rivers. And she was fascinated by the wider world she’d seen in books and knew she wanted to see it for herself. 

Li had her parents’ support to pursue her studies but they, along with most others she encountered, didn’t believe a girl was capable of scholarly work, particularly in the sciences. “I was told that girls are not good at this. If boys want to study hard so that they can have a better grade it’s much easier than for girls,” says Li. Women should return to the family and stay at home, she was told, because marriage is the greatest happiness imaginable.

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But Li ignored what she calls the “indirect stereotypes” of women that pressured many of her peers to stay put. She aspired to be a scientist focused on water conservation, both to preserve the beautiful environment where she grew up, and to encourage other girls to resist discrimination and pursue advanced degrees. 

At Ohio State University, where Li earned her PhD in geography and hydro-climatology, Li began to realize her aspirations — and to live up to her name, which means “unique” and “innovative.” She studied streamflow — the water in streams, rivers and other channels that feed urban and rural areas worldwide. Changes in streamflow impact drinking water, power supply, agriculture and biodiversity. That supply is shifting with climate change, which means more or less water than historically experienced by many places, leading to droughts and flooding. Accurately predicting how streamflow will change is critical but tricky because of the number of factors that affect it. 

Nowadays, Li is essentially a water detective, investigating the dominant drivers of hydrological change and how they affect lives and livelihoods. Using hydrological modeling techniques she created, Li is able to predict how water volume may change over decades in several hundred U.S. watersheds. “[I] look at the impacts of climate change on water resources, for example, with global warming and more frequent extreme weather events. How will the water resources change in the future? Will there be some places that will have a shortage of water and how can we cope with that and how can we provide useful information to decision makers?” says Li. 

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Precipitation is the primary factor in streamflow changes in much of the US, but Li also looks at anthropogenic influences on watersheds including urbanization and dam construction because those non-climatic drivers, she discovered, were especially pronounced during the past 30 years. Understanding those impacts is important to create an accurate picture of water availability in the decades ahead. She has already made some of that knowledge available to policymakers, and water resource engineers and managers, to help them plan more effectively for a future of climate change. 

Now, as a postdoc at Dartmouth University, Li is studying drought risk in North America and, more specifically, how vegetation productivity and climate change shape each other. “My work is to look at, in what regions and what stages of the drought, is the vegetation ameliorating or aggravating the drying,” says Li. 

Knowing that will help predict water availability and natural hazards. “Drought or wildfire in the western United States and extreme precipitation in the northeastern United States — all those natural hazards … really motivate me,” she says. Li hopes that being able to foresee those impacts could help mitigate them. “I do this research out of a labor of love and, I just think, yeah, it is important and a pressing issue that we need to cope with.”

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