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An interview with Rui Zhu, IAYG Representative Member on the IGU Young & Early Career Geographers Taskforce

14 September 2020

In June, IAYG selected Mr. Rui Zhu as the IAYG-nominated and representative member of the International Geographical Union Young & Early Career Geographers Taskforce. As a member of the Taskforce, he is helping to build events and partnership programs that will support early career geographers and the future of the field. We took a moment to get to know Mr. Zhu a little better in this interesting interview over Zoom about his work, ideas about future programs in geographic education, and why the field matters to him.

Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Yes, so I am currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara Geography Department, and my current research interests are in geospatial semantics and spatial statistics. Before I came to UCSB, I got my master’s in information science at the University of Pittsburgh, and before that I got my bachelor’s in information systems in China.

Basically, what I’m working on is a combination of statistics, information science, and geography, or in other words, spatial data science.

Thanks to applications like GIS, spatial data science (SDS) is one of the most prominent new areas of geography and data science. Can you share some thoughts on the area and how it is shaping the field of geography?

I think the goal of spatial data scientists is to bridge different disciplines through geospatial knowledge and thinking. Everything happens at some place during some time. As a spatial data scientist, we use our spatio-temporal knowledge and information technologies to interconnect different data silos across disciplines with space and time as the nexus. In such a way, we enable modeling across different disciplines so that we are capable of solving more complex problems, from climate change to the global pandemic that we are encountering now, for examples.

You have taught classes at UCSB. What would you say is important in geographic education today?

Right, so in terms of teaching at UC Santa Barbara, I have played two types of roles: as a teaching assistant and as a lecturer. As a teaching assistant, I have worked with professors from multiple subdomains in geography, such as oceanography, information science, and statistics, to help them manage material and lecture lab sessions. As an instructor, I focus on teaching Introduction to Geographic Information Science, an upper-level undergraduate course. Based on my experience, for education in geography, it is especially important for younger geographers to learn the basic technologies to deal with spatial data, such as ArcGIS, QGIS, and how to deal with spatial data in R and Python. It becomes more important as we are in the age of big data; knowing the right tool to deal with geospatial data more efficiently turns to be extremely important. 

But beyond that, I do think another important component of geographic education is to teach students domain knowledge: and specifically in GIS, the different types of data structures to represent, store, model, and visualize spatial data is the core. For example, how do you conceptualize, represent, store, and incorporate locations into your model?  There are multiple ways to do so, and which one to choose for specific applications is something that geographers have to study. As educators of geography, we should emphasize it in our curricula.

At this challenging moment, I want to also emphasize the need to raise the awareness of diversity and inclusivity in our classes. That is something that I am currently trying very hard to do in my research and teaching. I believe geography is one of the fields that help bridge the divided world by embracing and investigating both the differences and connections between various regions, ethnic groups, and cultures.  

With COVID-19 and related disruptions, the next year will be a unique one for building and hosting programs. Do you have any ideas, hypothetically, for programs that you are thinking about?

That’s a very good question. The situation right now is not ideal for networking events as before. All travel is banned, not just in the US but also internationally. I am very interested in bringing knowledge of geography, information sciences, and spatial statistics, to developing countries like Africa, but of course this is not an option for the next year or so.

So I am thinking more about virtual events. Some academic meetings scheduled next year are already going to take place virtually. I usually organize academic sessions on specific topics, and since I’ve joined this group, I’m thinking that we could organize something that is as broad as attracting high school students, or undergraduate students to participate, something like introducing careers in geography. I think this could turn be a great opportunity. Holding virtual meetings also means that people don’t need to travel, thus we can potentially attract more participants, especially those younger geographers. So that’s something I feel excited to do this year. 

Why do you think geography is important today?

Wow, that’s a really good, but broad, question! Why geography matters: in fact I mentioned this already in answering your previous questions. I strongly believe that everything happens at some space and at some time; so space and time play a very important role in most of the phenomena and events that happens in this world. How do we understand, and further model, space and time? That’s what geographers do, and that’s why geography fascinates me, and why I’ve built my career in geography. That’s probably a very broad answer to your very broad question! 


Rishi Gorrepati

Global Director, Programme Development

[email protected]