University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis (left) congratulates Xiao-Hai Yan, the Mary A.S. Lighthipe Professor in Marine Studies in the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, after Yan was honored with the 2019 Outstanding Doctoral Graduate Advising and Mentoring Award during UD’s doctoral hooding ceremony on The Green.
Article by Karen B. Roberts Photos by Evan Krape and Kathy Atkinson May 31, 2019
Over nearly 30 years as a University of Delaware professor, Xiao-Hai Yan has amassed an impressive list of accomplishments and collaborations both in the United States and overseas.
Yan, the Mary A.S. Lighthipe Professor in Marine Studies and director of UD’s Center for Remote Sensing, is internationally known for using satellites in tracking the notorious weathermaker El Niño and in developing new techniques for monitoring global climate change and coastal responses.
He was first to show how remotely sensed data can be used to study processes occurring beneath the ocean surface and to predict the depth of the ocean’s mixed layer, which plays an important role in climate variability. His cutting-edge study of the deep ocean leveraged emerging technology in deep learning, machine learning and data science, ultimately revolutionizing the satellite models that scientists use to extract information from the ocean’s subsurface. Today, these methods are used by U.S., Chinese and European scientists to understand global climate, and his work has become a classic reference in climate studies.
But to his students, Yan is a distinguished and exceptional mentor who “has not only been an inspiration, but also an aspiration.”
On Friday, May 31, Yan was recognized with the 2019 Outstanding Doctoral Graduate Advising and Mentoring Award during UD’s doctoral hooding ceremony on The Green.
Given annually, the award recognizes faculty members whose dedication and commitment to excellence in graduate training have made “a significant contribution to the quality of life and professional development of graduate students” at UD.
Since joining the UD faculty in 1990, Yan has advised or mentored 55 doctoral, masters and undergraduate students, as well as 11 post-doctoral researchers. He also has served on the committees of many other doctoral and master’s degree students.
“Professor Yan has been an academic leader who integrates the research, teaching and service components of the University mission into an impactful program of activities at the international, national and local levels,” said Mark Moline, director of the School of Marine Science and Policy.
Today, Yan’s academic family tree includes former students who have gone on to occupy prominent positions as leaders in top universities and institutes in the United States and in the world.
Many current and former students attribute their success to Yan’s early support, patience and encouragement, saying he guided them “toward intellectual and professional independence” by teaching them to think independently and to consider interdisciplinary approaches to their work.
“For me, he often provided big-picture concepts associated with contemporary research topics and allowed me to autonomously find my own way of approaching an issue,” recalled Brian Dzwonkowski, now an assistant professor of marine science at University of South Alabama and senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab.
A prolific publisher, Yan is the author of over 300 journal articles and his work is highly-cited in the scientific community. Following in his footsteps, Yan’s students have collectively published over 100 peer reviewed papers and participated in over 100 presentations at local, regional, national and international conferences.
Young-Heon Jo earned a doctorate at UD in 2003, followed by additional time as a post-doc and research scientist in Yan’s lab.
“One of my best decisions was that I had built my academic career in Dr. Yan’s group … his endless efforts to satisfy students’ curiosities were the right recipe to raise student’s research capabilities,” said Jo, now an associate professor of oceanography at Pusan National University in South Korea.
Today, Jo teaches a satellite oceanography class similar to the one he took at UD. Jo still remembers when Yan coordinated the installation of two satellite receiving stations on UD’s Newark campus to advance his research.
“I clearly remember when the two satellite receiving stations were installed on the roof of Willard Hall Education Building in July 2010,” Jo said. “I had been downloading satellite observations for my research … and everything was changed after that day. I could process the real-time observations in the North Atlantic Ocean.”
Today, these two receiving stations continue to play an important role in monitoring ecological changes while providing research and learning opportunities for students.
Estella Atekwana, dean of the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, noted Yan’s dedication as a mentor, particularly his efforts to foster his students’ long-term career goals and to help them develop professional networks by attending national meetings and interacting with leading scientists.
Feili Li, who earned both master’s and doctoral degrees in marine studies at UD, benefited from Yan’s focus on professional development, but what stuck with him were the discussions at weekly meetings around research progress, how to raise scientific questions and how to think critically to solve challenging problems.
“I believe that every achievement I am proud of today is tied to what I learned and gained at UD in the Yan lab,” said Li, a research scientist with Duke University.
Yan also is well-known for staying in touch with his students and continuing to offer support and advice as his former students become young career professionals.
“These strong ties, fostered by Dr. Yan, have carried beyond just our time at UD, as present and past members of Dr. Yan’s research group routinely get together at professional conferences and continue to collaborate on research efforts,” said Lide Jiang, now a research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Within the broader university, Yan has played an integral role in the University’s efforts to improve and expand the intellectual exchange between UD and Xiamen University, and at universities in South Korea, and in the development of UD’s Confucius Institute.