Valerie Thomas, associate professor of forest remote sensing, and Yang Shao, assistant professor of geography, were named the new co-directors of the college’s Center for Environmental Applications of Remote Sensing (CEARS) in December.

CEARS, which was named a NASA center of excellence in applications of remote sensing to regional and global integrated environmental assessments, was started 19 years ago by professors Randolph Wynne and Jim Campbell. “We needed an interdisciplinary approach to address grand challenges in Earth and environmental science,” Wynne said. Campbell added, “We were already collaborating on instruction, but the center helped bring students together. We connected with other departments and planted seeds for more robust research activity.”

After almost two decades at the helm, Wynne and Campbell welcomed the transition to new leadership for the center. “Valerie Thomas and Yang Shao are coming into a program that is not only vibrant and strong, but was one of the early leading efforts on the campus to bridge disciplines in an effort to focus on Earth and environmental science,” said Dean Paul Winistorfer.

The new co-directors will continue the center’s strong research, education, and outreach programs, providing sound science for decision-making. Shao would like to increase collaboration inside and outside the college. “The Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program can be a basis for expanding collaborations, such as with electrical and computer engineering, biological systems engineering, statistics, and Advanced Research Computing at Virginia Tech,” he said.

Thomas looks forward to taking advantage of the advent of big data; a major upgrade in computers at the center will allow faculty and students to handle the huge amount of information now being provided. “Landsat satellite images and data are now free, exploding the scope of the science we can do and the kinds of questions we can ask to gain insight into ecosystem function and disturbance,” Thomas said.