College of LAS « Illinois

Student Life

Chinese Dust Bowl Inspired Award-Winning Student to Study Global Ecology

PhD student receives 2011 Special Achievement in Geographic Information Systems.


Dan Dong remembers days when the entire sky turned yellow with sand, and you could barely see beyond the length of your arm.

“Even if you blocked all of your windows, the sand would come into your house—very, very small particles,” says Dong, an LAS student in geography. “When you tried to inhale, you breathed in sand. It’s very serious.”

The sandstorms of China triggered Dong’s interest in the environment and her studies in global ecology. She grew up in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning, which sees its share of sandstorms, and today she is a PhD student at the University of Illinois. She is also a recipient of the 2011 Special Achievement in GIS award from Esri, the world leader in Geographic Information System (GIS) software. Dong is one of only two students nationwide to receive the prestigious award.

Since coming to Illinois last year, she has continued to focus on the environment, working on a project to refine the EcoCAT mapping system. This GIS system is used to identify sensitive natural resources, such as wetlands and endangered or threatened species.

“For example,” Dong says, “if you are a real estate developer, and you want to construct a building in a certain area of Illinois, you can go to the EcoCAT website, mark out the area where you want to build, and do a spatial query to find out if your action would encroach on sensitive natural resources.”

She has also been involved with DIRT (Detailed Impact Review Tool), a system that can identify many layers of information about parcels of land in Illinois—information ranging from soil types and rivers to streets, railways, and freeways.

Dong says she is especially fascinated with remote sensing, particularly systems that can analyze satellite images to determine the extent of vegetative cover on the ground—a geographic feature linked to the dust storms of China. These storms have resulted from the degradation of vegetative cover in Inner Mongolia, west of her province. Cows and sheep have grazed the grasslands down to nothing, leaving the sandy soil at the mercy of the wind.

According to Dong, China has acted to remedy the problem by building the “Green Wall of China”—an extensive belt of trees to hold back the advancing desert. She envisions herself returning to China some day; but in the meantime, she hopes to do academic work in the United States after she finishes her PhD at the U of I.

Fall 2011