Focus On Faculty

Changying “Charlie” Li

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?

I received my Ph.D. degree in agricultural and biological engineering from Pennsylvania State University and earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from China Agricultural University. I did a short postdoc at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before I joined UGA.

As a professor in the College of Engineering and director of the Bio-Sensing and Instrumentation Laboratory, I teach both undergraduate and graduate courses in sensors and instrumentation programming for engineering students. I am also a member of the Institute of Artificial Intelligence and Faculty of Robotics at UGA. I conduct research on the science and engineering of sensing and robotics in agriculture and food systems. I am currently the director of a large, collaborative research project supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. I am also leading the Agricultural Sensing and Robotics Initiative (one of the first Strategic Research Initiative Projects supported by the College of Engineering) and co-leading the Field-based High Throughput Phenotyping Project between the College of Engineering and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. In the past year, I have been leading the visioning process for the Secure Resilient Sustainable Systems research cluster in the College of Engineering to identify research priorities and determine directions of future faculty hiring in the college.

When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?

I joined UGA as an assistant professor in 2007. My Ph.D. advisor at Penn State passed on the job announcement to me and told me: “UGA is a great school. You definitely should choose it if you have the opportunity.” Besides his advice, I also was attracted by the excellent people at UGA. Former department head Dr. Threadgill and the department coordinator at Tifton, Dr. Vellidis, have provided great mentorship to me, and my colleagues on the Tifton campus have also been tremendously helpful for me at the beginning of my career.

I spent my first five formative years in the department of biological and agricultural engineering on the Tifton campus. I had the opportunity to relocate to the Athens campus to join the newly established College of Engineering in 2012. The college leadership team has been very supportive of me and my work. I think I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a group of excellent colleagues in this growing college.

What are your favorite courses and why?

I enjoy teaching all three courses I currently offer to both undergraduate and graduate students. In particular, I like ENGR 4230/6230, “Sensors and Transducers.” It is an upper-level undergraduate and also graduate course for four engineering degrees: computer systems engineering, biomedical engineering, agricultural engineering and electrical engineering.  I believe that “learning by doing” is a principle that applies to most engineering disciplines. It is particularly true for sensors and instrumentation courses, which are highly hands-on. To address the issue of inadequate access to benchtop instruments in the classroom both in terms of space and time, I have introduced a portable data acquisition platform (NI myDAQ) into the class thanks to a UGA STEM grant and support from the college. The new approach enables students to perform electronics labs with their laptop beyond the classroom and empowers the students to learn and explore instrumentation using a self-paced learning style with better learning outcomes.  

What interests you about your field?

Feeding the 9 billion people expected to inhabit our planet by 2050 will be one of the greatest challenges facing humanity. The long-term goal of my lab is to develop innovative sensing and automation technologies to help efficiently provide safe and high-quality food, fiber, feed and fuel to sustain the world’s growing population. One example of our efforts is that my collaborators and I are developing a robot-assisted high throughput phenotyping system to acquire fine-scale information about plant growth over entire seasons. By developing advanced sensing, robotics and data analytics tools, we will help plant geneticists and breeders relate molecular signatures to key differences in phenotype and dissect the genetics of quantitative traits such as yield and stress tolerance. We believe this work is crucial to addressing food security amid global climate change.

What are some highlights of your career at UGA?

I have been fortunate to receive various recognitions in my career at UGA. I received the New Holland Young Research Award from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers this year. I also received the Gary A. Herzog Award of Excellence for Junior Research Scientists on the Tifton campus and the Early Career Award from the Association of Overseas Chinese Agricultural, Biological and Food Engineers in 2011. A paper co-authored by my former doctoral student Weilin Wang and me was awarded the Best Paper Award from the Information and Electrical Technical Division from the ASABE. I am grateful for the support provided by my colleagues and students.

How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?

I am a firm believer that research and teaching are inseparable and that the two activities can benefit each other. I have been mentoring undergraduate students for research through the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities over the past few years and exposing graduate students to teaching experiences. I try to bring the latest research progress into the classroom to inspire students to see the big picture and how the fundamental knowledge they learn is relevant to real-world problems. Meanwhile, I also bring the class materials to the lab and discuss with my graduate students how to make the learning easier and more fun.

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?

I believe that the most effective learning is through engaging each student, spurring their interest and motivating them to learn. I try to motivate my students by relating what we learn in the class to our daily experiences. I ask students to write a mini-paper at the end of each class to provide feedback and summarize the concepts learned in the class to promote active learning and thinking. I constantly listen to student needs and adapt my teaching style to meet each class’s and each student’s needs. I am also developing a flipped class model to enhance student engagement and active learning during the class through group discussions and working example problems together. At the end of the day, I want my students to learn how to learn and grow a strong interest in the subject. 

Describe your ideal student.

My ideal student would be the one who is self-motivated, has a curious mind and is a life-long learner.

Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…

I enjoy spending most of my time in the lab discussing research questions with my students and getting my hands dirty on the bench whenever I have time.  Another favorite place on campus is the Ramsey Student Center, where I go swimming and do cardio workouts. Walking on the beautiful campus in spring is also such a pleasant experience.

Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…

At home, I like to read children’s books to my two kids, teaching them swimming and watching my older son’s Little League baseball games.

Community/civic involvement includes….

My community involvement includes a robotics field trip in my lab for the multi-age kids in the Child Development Lab at the McPhaul Center, a 3-D printer demonstration for the Cub Scout kids, and a judgeship experience in the FIRST Lego Robotics competition at UGA. These experiences have been fun.

Favorite book/movie (and why)?

I like reading nonfiction books. “The Double Helix” by James Watson is a fascinating book about the discovery of the structure of DNA, considered to be the most important scientific discovery in the 20th century. It also made me realize that science is fascinating and exciting when you race to be the first in a discovery. Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson is also one of my favorite books, perhaps simply because Steve Jobs is such an inspiring figure. Jobs did not have formal training in computer science or electrical engineering but invented the personal computer and transformed the telecommunications, music and consumer electronics industries. Another favorite book is “Team of Rivals” by Doris Goodwin. Through this book, I understand perhaps the most important period of American history, the personal struggles and triumphs of Lincoln and his “rivals,” and how Lincoln’s extraordinary leadership skills helped save the nation and made him one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history.

Proudest moment at UGA?

I feel proudest when my students succeed and when my teaching and mentoring made a difference in their lives. In the past six years, the graduate students I mentored have won 16 significant awards at the college, national and international levels, such as best paper awards, national graduate student research awards and innovative interdisciplinary research grant award. It was such a rewarding feeling when the UGA Career Center sent me a certificate because a student acknowledged me in making an impact on her career development. It is my privilege to work with talented graduate students in my lab and undergraduate students in my class, and my goal is to help them succeed not only during their study at UGA but also in their future careers.
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