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Two graduate students are traveling the globe for research while making UT history as the university’s first recipients of National Geographic Young Explorers Grants.

Yanan (Nancy) Li, a doctoral candidate in geography, and Todd Pierson, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, are the first UT students to receive the grant which supports students pursuing field projects in research, exploration, and conservation.

They will share their stories of research in western China and the southern Appalachians on Saturday, September 20, at the National Geographic Young Explorers Grants workshop for UT students.

Nancy Li
Nancy Li holds a GPS unit while standing on a glacial moraine more than 11,000 feet above sea level in the Bogeda Range of the Tian Shan Mountains. Behind her is the Heigou glacier. Photo credit: Yingkui Li

Li is the first UT student to receive a Young Explorers Grant. The funding supported her 2012 field research in the Tian Shan Mountains aimed at determining the timing and extent of glacial advances in past millennia. The region, near the China-Kyrgyzstan border and known as the “Water Tower of Asia” because of abundant glaciers in the high mountains, is sensitive to the effects of climate change. Her research will help plan for the effects of ongoing climate change on water resources of Central Asia.

For her research, Li climbed into high mountain valleys to map glacial features and collect rock samples deposited at the leading edges of glaciers. She shipped the samples back to Tennessee and has been studying certain rare isotopes. Li is investigating how long these isotopes accumulated due to exposure to cosmic radiation. This will allow her to compare the timing of the most recent advances of the glaciers and contribute to knowledge of the climate history of the region.

Pierson is the recipient of two Young Explorers Grants.

Todd Pierson
Todd Pierson is working to develop an environmental DNA assay for aquatic plethodontid salamanders. Photo Credit: Grover Brown

His first grant brought him to Tibet, where he searched for a high-elevation population of the Chinese giant salamander. Although he did not find any, local people recounted anecdotes indicating that the animals still exist in that region. His second grant takes him into the southern Appalachians, where he is working to develop an environmental DNA assay for aquatic plethodontid (lungless) salamanders. The new assay will make it possible to characterize entire amphibian communities from just a sample of stream water.

Li and Pierson will be among the speakers taking part in the Young Explorers Grants workshop from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 20, in the Shiloh Room of the University Center. The workshop is free to all students, but advance registration is requested. Kenny Broad, 2011 National Geographic Explorer of the Year, and Mark Synnott, National Geographic grantee and The North Face athlete, will also participate in the workshop.

Broad and Synnott will present a program about their explorations at 7:00 p.m. in the University Center auditorium. Broad will talk about his exploration of the Bahamas blue holes and Synnott will talk about his extensive experience big-wall climbing around the world. The presentation is free and open to the public.

For more information, visit Tennessee Today‘s past story about the events.


Carol Harden (, 865-974-8357)