Li, new AAAS Fellow, known for clearing up cloud mysteries

When writing about Zhanqing Li, the phrase “head in the clouds” becomes high praise. Li, a University of Maryland atmospheric and oceanic science professor and researcher at the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC), has been delivering insights into the roles of clouds and tiny aerosol particles in the atmosphere for three decades.

His recent election as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recognized his “seminal contributions to atmospheric physics and observation, environmental and climate changes through creative research and international cooperation.” according to a UMD news release. But even with the lofty accolade, Li says he is staying grounded in his work.

The fellowship election is the sort of “side product which you didn’t work for and you didn’t expect to come,” Li says, making sure to add: “I’m still pleased to be an honorable member in this world’s largest science community.”

Of course, this isn’t Li’s first recognition, either. His recent titles – American Geophysical Union (AGU) fellow, editor of the Journal of Geophysical Research, president of the Chinese-American Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (COAA) – and a long list of awards from societies in the United States, Canada and Germany attest to his productivity as a researcher and community leader.

An interest in concepts and the big picture has helped Li make a big impact; it’s what led him to become a researcher. As an undergraduate in the 1980s at Nanjing Institute of Meteorology in China, he recalls, he was always thinking about the ideas behind his coursework.

“I wondered, where [do] these come from, how did people have these ideas in the first place?” he says. “I asked my professor many [more] questions than what the course material covered.”

Finally, he recalls, the professor said, “You have a research mind – I encourage you to go for graduate study.” Li did so, becoming one of two Master of Science students admitted from a class of 40. His thesis study on mountain meteorology garnered him seven published papers, a feat he says still stands as a record at Nanjing Institute of Meteorology (now Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology). From there, he moved to Canada to pursue a Ph.D. in atmospheric remote sensing at McGill University from 1987 to 1991.

At that time, the climate change and atmospheric physics topics that intrigued Li needed more research, he remembers. “We did not have a very clear image,” Li says. “When I was a student, I feel the world is kind of hazy, so I really … want to have a lens to peek inside what’s going on.”

Li cut through some of that haze by developing new methods for drawing climate information from satellite data. Among other findings, he made major corrections in the atmosphere-surface redistribution of radiation, solved a decades-old mystery around clouds’ absorption of solar radiation, discovered predominant two-layer clouds, and led an international team to investigate uncertainties in satellite observations of global aerosol properties.

As principal investigator on NASA’s East Asian Study of Tropospheric Aerosols and Impact on Regional Climate (EAST-AIRE), and on a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) mobile climate research facility deployment in China, Li led U.S. and Chinese teams carrying out joint field experiments related to climate change. The work involved developing a Chinese aerosol observation network of 25 sites nationwide, as well as intensive field campaigns using ground-, aircraft- and satellite-based instruments. The information from observations, together with modeling studies, unraveled complex climate-change problems tied to the strong but competing anthropogenic effects of aerosol, greenhouse gases and urbanization.

Li’s studies in China have benefited from his engagement with the DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) facility in the U.S. Great Plains. His research there has led to findings such as the impact of aerosols on cloud height, microphysics and precipitation – the particles can aggravate both droughts and severe storms.

Li likes writing about his research as well as conducting it. “I enjoy it because I can truly express myself,” he says. “My curiosity is somewhat met in the writing, in the process of writing.” He’s been prolific, with 220 articles in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Nature, Science and other leading journals.

“He’s very full of ideas,” says Maureen Cribb, an ESSIC faculty specialist in Li’s research group who edits the group’s papers. “He’s a very productive guy.”

Since 1874, AAAS has named fellows in recognition of their “meritorious efforts to advance science or its applications.” Li is the 81st faculty member of UMD’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences to become an AAAS fellow. This year’s 347-fellow class will be recognized in February at AAAS’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.