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Pinki Mondal: New Professor Profile

September 17, 2018

dr. mondal profile

Could you give me a little background information about yourself?

I received my undergraduate degree in geology with minors in chemistry and mathematics from the University of Calcutta. I did my master’s in applied geology from Jadavpur University which is another top-ranked university in Calcutta, which is my home town. For my master’s thesis, I used satellite images to understand how the landscape is changing in one of the islands in the Indian Sundarbans and I absolutely loved it.

Although for my geological training I spent a lot of time outside, I learned that I actually preferred to sit in front of a computer. My graduate program in the United States was at the University of Florida, which is very popular for geospatial science, and I got my PhD from the University of Florida in Geography with a Land Change Science concentration. For my PhD dissertation, I worked in a tiger reserve in India. I basically analyzed satellite images from over 30 years to see if relocating people who lived within the reserve boundary and had to be moved outside actually helped the landscape. In that department, we had people from over 20 countries so that was great to start in such a melting pot.

 

What’d you do after you got your PhD?

After finishing my PhD in 2010, I moved on to a brief post-doc at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. I was there in the Environmental Conservation department, and I started working on a forestry project where I was applying my remote sensing skills to understand how private forests were changing in the United States.

After 6 months, I got an offer from Columbia that was difficult to turn down. I told my Columbia postdoctoral mentor that I just started at UMass, and I really wanted to publish something from my work before joining Columbia, and she generously offered me to start delayed.

 

When did you start at Columbia?

I joined Columbia in 2012, and I was a post-doc for almost 3 1/2 years on a NASA project. We went back to India and I used satellite images for weather information such as temperature and precipitation, for crop cover, and we combined them together along with other information to see how the weather variability is affecting crops.

We focused on winter crops because in India, pretty much all the land is taken up for farming. It’s not possible to expand, but it’s possible to do intensification, so you can use the same land over and over again. And if we want to feed the increasing population in India and beyond, sustainable intensification is only way to go.

We specifically focused on winter wheat, lentils, and other winter crops. I started working with nutritionists and agricultural economist to look into food security or adaptation strategies that might help provide more climate-resilient and nutritious food. Rice is a staple there, but it takes up a lot of water so we started looking at other crop options that are more nutritious.

Rice is less nutritious compared to coarse cereals such as millets, but the cultural aspect is huge. You cannot just go to people and say, ‘Don’t eat rice because it’s not nutritious, and it’s not good for the environment’ so I’m collaborating with colleagues in New York University and other agricultural scientists in India, to understand the yield variability of other nutritious crop choices.  

I’m also leading a project where I’m looking at the current food item choices among Indian farmer families, and how those choices change with seasons. We are also testing if nutrition security is achievable with those dietary choices. I just finished up data collection so hopefully, a couple of papers will come out soon where we’ll have more understanding of what people are actually eating and where they are in terms of nutritional security in India.

 

Could you talk a little bit about what brought you to UD? What was appealing about this job and the college?

My last appointment was as a senior research associate at a data center at the Earth Institute at Columbia. While it was great in terms of developing and disseminating satellite-derived data products through a NASA data center, what I missed there was the capability to advise students. I could mentor them, but because I wasn’t a professor, I couldn’t have my own lab. I wanted to develop a research program where I would advise graduate students so that I could have a strong research program. The UD job offered me that.

When I was interviewing here, I met with people and saw the organic nature and types of collaborations that I could build. When you’re writing grant proposals, it always helps to work with people within the same university so I was looking for a place where I would have a lot of opportunities to collaborate with people. I saw that it was possible here with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Department of Applied Economics and Statistics. It was great for me to have this job. I found the department to be really supportive, especially to the new faculty. I’m loving it here.

 

What will be the size of your lab?

Right now, I have two master’s students. One is coming from India and the other one was a UD undergrad and after he saw my profile, he approached the chair and through the chair I accepted him as a master’s student. I have had a few other inquiries regarding PhD positions so I told them to go through the departmental procedure so they can start next year.

I really enjoy working with students so I would say I’m hoping to build a mid-sized lab. I’ve submitted grants and if they get funded I’ll be able to hire maybe a post-doc or two, and I’m submitting another internal grant with Cristina Archer so I could probably co-advise a student with her too.

 

Will you be looking at food insecurity while at UD?

I will. Absolutely. There are two different directions I want to take here at UD. One would be a method development approach and the other would be more application-oriented approach.

One of my students will be working on utilizing active satellite radar data to develop methods so that we can convert that data into crop responses. That’s the method development component, very technical requiring advanced remote sensing skills. I also want to have my prospective students work on developing methods involving geospatial data because the geospatial data science field is growing here at UD, and I would like to have a very strong presence in that field.

For the other application-oriented approach, I’ll continue with what I started at Columbia and developed thereafter. I am collaborating with my colleagues at different institutions looking at food security, nutrition security, climate impacts on crops, and how crops are changing in response to changing precipitation, and temperature especially. I am particularly interested in applying remote sensing skills of my lab members to monitoring and assessing Sustainable Development Goals. We will be studying human-nature interactions, so we named our lab group EASEL - “EArth observation for Sustainable Ecosystem and Livelihood.”

 

What is it about sitting behind the computer and looking at satellite images that drew you into the field?

I still remember the first time I was looking at a satellite image, it was all red because satellites see in a very different way than we do. When we see green, for a healthy vegetation, satellites see it in infrared. Because humans cannot see infrared, we put that signal into a visible channel and all the remote sensing books that we see, vegetation is colored as red. That intrigued me quite a lot and I started thinking, ‘That’s a very different lens that we are looking through.’ I love how you can have a very different vision through a satellite. Satellites see the same landscape that we are seeing in many different ways so you pick the channel you want to see and I like how you can tweak that information in a meaningful way.  

 

How has the access to data changed over the years?

When I started as a master’s student in India, we didn’t have that much computing power and you would need a lot of computing power in terms of analyzing these images. I have been working in this field for almost 14 or 15 years now and the computing power, the accessibility and the availability of data is just phenomenal right now. We have free access to so much data. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s a boon or a curse because with great power comes great responsibility.

Back in the day, you’d have to spend thousands of dollars to get one satellite image. Now it’s free. You can download whatever you want and then you can analyze. It gives me more responsibility, but I love the idea of having accessibility to all this data that can be utilized in such a meaningful way. Especially for studying the changing environment, it’s a great resource.

With cloud computing, these days I work mostly on Google Earth Engine, and it’s just amazing how quickly you can get things done. When I was a graduate student, if I was running something, it would take months. Now it takes days, if not minutes. This has revolutionized the field. I’m looking forward to learning new things from my students because they are coming from a different generation so I’m looking forward to learning a few tricks.

 

Are you teaching at all?

Yes, I’m teaching Introduction to GIS this semester and hopefully next semester too.

 

What do you like to do in your free time?

I like to travel a lot. I’m always collaborating with people so that I can see new countries, and I’m developing a project in Vietnam so hopefully, if that gets funded, I get to see that beautiful country. I like to travel at least once or twice internationally each year. I like to read books but with all the grant writing and teaching and everything else, there’s not much time for it.

 

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