Engineering researcher awarded IEE 'Person of the Year' for 2023

Li Li, the Barry and Shirley Isett Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering, is being recognized for her outstanding contributions to her field that resulted in multiple distinguished research achievements.

May 7, 2024

Editor’s note: A version of this article was first published on Penn State News. 

By Kevin Sliman

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Li Li, the Barry and Shirley Isett Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering, is the inaugural recipient of the Institute of Energy and the Environment’s Person of the Year Award. The award celebrates an exceptional researcher whose accomplishments in energy or environmental research have yielded notable successes over the past year. In addition to research excellence, the IEE Person of the Year Award recognizes leadership, mentoring and service. 

“It is my great honor to present Li Li with the 2023 IEE Person of the Year Award. Over the past year, her outstanding contributions to her field resulted in multiple distinguished research achievements, including a significant study that provided new insights into climate change’s impact on river systems and aquatic life,” said Bruce Logan, director of the Institute of Energy and the Environment. “As an IEE faculty member, Li has consistently produced innovative, collaborative methods to solve and address important problems. Penn State's research community is significantly enriched by her presence.” 

Tonya L. Peeples, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean of the Penn State College of Engineering, said the award is a well-deserved honor for Li. 

“Dr. Li’s impact is twofold,” said Peeples. “Her pioneering work in hydrological modeling keeps us informed on how rivers and their ecosystems continue to be impacted by climate change, and she has also shown a deep commitment to creating more inclusive pathways and networks for women in STEM. Her impact will resonate in our community and beyond for years to come.” 

Li said it is a tremendous honor to be recognized. 

“I am deeply grateful to the IEE community for ‘seeing’ me and the work from my group,” she said. “I am extremely thankful to my incredible students and collaborators at and beyond Penn State. This award is really for all of them. If you are a woman of color, an immigrant from a completely different culture, a non-native English speaker, a parent, this award is also for you.” 

image of two people sitting in chairs having a conversation

Li Li listens to a student's feedback during a presentation. Credit: Kevin Sliman. All Rights Reserved.

Elevating awareness through science 

A notable research impact by Li and her colleagues was a 2023 Nature Climate Change article that was the first study to take a comprehensive look at temperature change and deoxygenation rates in rivers. She said it’s rewarding to see an increased awareness about climate change’s impacts on water quality, both within the scientific community and among the public.  

“There has been considerable attention in the scientific community about how climate change affects precipitation and climate extremes. Yet deteriorating water quality in a changing climate has received very little attention,” she said. “For instance, the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report barely mentioned the risks of deteriorating water quality in a changing climate. Our papers address this significant gap, enhancing understanding of how warming affects water quality and aquatic ecosystems.” 

Li added that raising awareness is a crucial first step towards taking action. 

A research question Li is investigating is water quality and the increasingly frequent extreme events like droughts, floods and fire.  

“These events not only disturb ecosystems but also disrupt water quality norms, which often threatens water supply,” she said. “Extreme weather events can significantly alter water quality, but data collection during these unpredictable times is difficult. Despite the challenges, improved prediction of water quality responses could benefit society by reducing risks and aiding adaptation.” 

IEE's impact 

Li said the Institute of Energy and the Environment’s vision to stimulate innovative ideas and foster collaboration across disciplines has enriched her academic career at Penn State.  

“I have had the opportunity via IEE to collaborate with faculty members from many departments and colleges, which has really shaped my career,” she said. “My students have learned tremendously from faculty with diverse and deep knowledge. IEE is fertile ground, nurturing creative ideas and collaborative teams. It has been deeply fulfilling to be a part of the IEE community.” 

professor stands talking to small group of researchers

Li Li addresses her research group in a hallway in Hammond Building. Credit: Kevin Sliman. All Rights Reserved.

Strong female support 

Throughout Li’s career, she has been deeply influenced by trailblazing women. Her doctoral adviser, Catherine Peters, was one of only six women faculty in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University at that time.  

"Catherine Peters instilled in me the belief that I could excel in any pursuit I chose, empowering me to take charge of my future," Li said. “Many women supported my path to a career in science. Today, more than 70% of the scientists who have initiated collaborations with me are women. I truly believe a critical mass of women in science and engineering is essential to reshape the demographic landscape in STEM.” 

In that effort to elevate women scientists, Li has co-led a global monthly seminar called Women Advancing River Research (WARR), which she started in 2021 with co-host, Ellen Wohl from Colorado State University. 

“WARR is an effort that uplifts women scientists,” she said. “We knew that women scientists were heavily impacted by the pandemic, and that women are statistically cited less and invited less for talks. WARR has become a prominent platform within the interdisciplinary community of hydrology, aquatic ecology, geomorphology and biogeochemistry.” 

WARR has featured more than 100 women scientists from five continents. Li said WARR’s archived talks are also being used as education materials by colleagues.  

“It has gone beyond our original expectations,” she said.

a group of researchers stand outside smiling for a photo

Li Li and her research group outside of the Hintz Family Alumni Center. Credit: Kevin Sliman. All Rights Reserved.

Looking ahead

When Li thinks about her impact as a researcher and educator, she said there are two frontiers where she hopes to make a difference.  

“One is the science frontier in the general area of understanding and predicting water quality in a rapidly changing world in terms of climate change and human disturbance,” she said. “The other is the people frontier. Revolution does not happen overnight. It happens day by day, bit by bit. Women have been oppressed throughout much of human history. If I were born a century ago, I would be probably a housewife. What I can do and achieve today, like getting this award, would have been unimaginable in the United States just 50 years ago, and it remains so in many parts of the world today. I am extremely lucky to have been born at the right time and to have come to the right place where such possibilities are within reach.” 

Li said the Earth and environmental sciences haven't historically included many women. She would like to mentor and empower more female and minority scientists, ultimately transforming the field. 

“It’s not only about the science,” she said. “It’s also about who is doing the science.”


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