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Life in a Geography World from Zero

My geography career got its start due to a mistake I made on my college application when I accidentally switched the order of my fields of study from biology to geography. As a science student who had studied geography for only two years, I was quite confused when I received my admission offer. However, the field of geography soon captured my interest with its comprehensiveness and intersectionality. Compared to human geography, which studies human activities and regional development, I found that my interest was more inclined towards the physical geography which focused on natural processes. After learning about geography from the universe to the soil and from the mountains to the oceanic trench, I realised it was truly an art, and I began looking forward to calling myself a geographer one day.

From right to left: The author's undergraduate thesis defense, vertical geographical zoning of Mount Lu, and Reservoir of Mount Lu, China.

During my sophomore year, I joined a team led by my supervisor, Dr. Sun, where I studied extreme climate events, the flash droughts. Drought events exacerbate the unbalanced distribution of water resources, which causes agricultural and economic loss. I learned that flash droughts, which may occur within a month, are hard to monitor using traditional technique and methods. Thus, our team combined data acquired from 32 years of satellite images to explore the spatiotemporal characteristics of flash droughts. These data included surface temperature, soil moisture and evapotranspiration (the part of the water cycle which removes liquid water from the soil into the atmosphere). I have really enjoyed my role on the team, and this project has helped me realise that I still need to improve my geoinformation skills. Without these skills, the geographic data I acquired would not be expressed correctly and the underlying mechanism would not be revealed. That is why I came to Hong Kong to pursue a master’s degree in geoinformation science (GIS) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). For my thesis project, I simulated how wetland degradation influences urban floods based on an environmental model. Wetlands can reduce urban surface runoff, which is the flow of water occurring on the ground surface, and thereby reducing the risk of flooding. Compared with agricultural wetlands and artificial wetlands, natural wetlands play a more prominent role because the former ones lack biodiversity.

From right to left: Jade Pool of Mount Huang, The peak-forest landscape of Mount Huang and Ancient Huizhou village — Hongcun, China

Currently, I am a research assistant on Dr. Paulina Wong’s team at Lingnan University, working on incense-burning air pollution in temples and how it relates to respiratory mortality. Incense burning is a traditional practice for people who believe in Buddhism or Taoism, especially common in Asia. Normally, people tend to ignore the adverse influence of incense burning, since such religious activities play a key role in their belief. While Hong Kong is a city of great diversity, it contains more than 360 temples, most of which are located in urban areas. Some temples are built within communities or are even adjacent to residential buildings. To explore which type of temple construction and incense-burning characteristics had great impact, we categorised the temples into four types: open temple, semi-closed temple, closed temple and non-active temple. The fine-particle matter emissions released from incense burning contains various air pollutants like respirable and fine suspended particles; high concentrations of these pollutants may increase the risk of respiratory disease. We hope that our research increases public awareness of the air quality problem created by incense burning and that it provides some suggestions for governmental urban planning on a community scale.

From right to left: 3D model of CUHK in ArcGIS, terrace and the loess plateau from Google Earth

I think I was very lucky to join the Science Unit because these projects have brought me a step closer to understanding Hong Kong. In fact, I found that the temples present the most peculiar aspect of this cosmopolitan city. It took me about a week to mark the locations and outlines of 366 temples in Hong Kong on Google Earth. Following the footprint of the temples, I used Google Street View Map to wander the streets of Hong Kong, check the incense burner locations of every temple and categorise them. The gods enshrined in the temples were also different, which encouraged me to occasionally search for the gods’ origins and stories. This project allowed me to experience the culture of Hong Kong in a unique way—not the exquisite and shining part of it but the traditional and approachable part.

I have found geography to be a continually fascinating subject and, as mentioned above, it can be combined with many other subject areas. This trait also gives geography infinite possibilities, which can be overwhelming for students when determining their career goals. Indeed, I was originally trained to be a high school geography teacher, and I even obtained my teaching qualifications. However, I know that it is not for me. Instead, I hope to continue my studies in the urban environment, especially in air-water interactions. Dr. Wong has also inspired me to pursue interdisciplinary studies that focus on government policy and human well-being. And she taught me to pay attention to details and stay curious, so that I can explore more from tiny changes.

Four Temple Types: (a) non-active temple; (b) closed temple; (c) semi-closed temple; (d) open temple (Picture from Hong Kong Antiquities and Monuments Office and Wikipedia).

I would advise others studying the field of geography not to give up. It is not easy to be a geographer, especially in a world where other materialistic concerns often come before others. In many cases, geographers always need to make concessions for economic development. Whenever I thought a project was too difficult or that my research had reached a dead end, I stopped what I was doing and found some interesting materials or cool research about geography. Doing this quickly rekindled my interest in the subject and motivated me to continue my work. I think this not only applies to my field of science but to every subject and field. Take heart in what got you there in the first place and hold on to the curiosity and passion you have!

About the author: CAI Wenhui earned her master’s degree in Geoinformation Science at The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2020, currently working as a research assistant at Lingnan University. She is interested in local-scale air pollution and hydro-meteorological hazards. She is a cat person without a cat, a beginner of Cantonese and a post-rock music lover.

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