By Tiffany Whitfield

Brian Collister, a recent Old Dominion University doctoral graduate in the Department of Ocean and Earth Sciences (OES), was recently awarded the 2022 Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award in the category of Mathematics, Physical Sciences and Engineering.

portrait of a student wearing a navy blue t-shirt

Collister was nominated by several OES and physics faculty members. Only two recipients are chosen annually for the CGS and ProQuest award. Collister and CharMaine Hines of Kansas State University, who won the award in the Social Sciences category, were chosen because in the opinion of the award committee, they “completed dissertations representing original work that makes an unusually significant contribution to the discipline.”

Collister’s dissertation project, which involved the development of oceanographic Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) for ocean profiling, has the potential to transform the understanding of ocean processes in a manner similar to what passive ocean color remote sensing has accomplished in the past 25 years. As such, it is directly relevant to the goals of ongoing research missions of NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His dissertation focused on solving several critical scientific issues that limit the ocean community’s ability to fully exploit the technology afforded by oceanographic LiDAR.

As lead author of the LiDAR study, Collister and a team of interdisciplinary scientists worked on this project for five years. The ODU faculty included OES Professor Richard Zimmerman and physics Professor and Chair Charles Sukenik. Scientists from Bigelow Laboratory were also part of the research team.

“In addition to his strong quantitative skills, Brian possesses excellent communication skills in both written and oral formats that will carry him a long way in his professional science career,” said Zimmerman, a study co-author and Collister's Ph.D. supervisor. “In my professional career, I have never worked with a student more interested, more enthusiastic and more capable of learning than Brian.”

Collister is a post-doctoratal fellow at NASA Langley Research Center and is working on an airborne LiDAR, the most advanced form of the technology, to make atmospheric and ocean measurements. With airborne LiDAR, special techniques use lasers to measure the ocean.

His expertise on remote sensing technique on the LiDAR study has shown to be useful for measuring the ocean and the types of material in it.

“People have had a hard time understanding what the LiDAR signal can tell you about the types of material in the water,” Collister said. “I built a shipboard LiDAR that works in concert with LiDARs on airplanes, allowing for measurements to be taken simultaneously in water from both instruments.” 

As an undergraduate at ODU, Collister began his journey in research with Zimmerman in OES and continued through as a doctoral student. ODU is one of the only places that has an oceanographic LiDAR system. Before defending his dissertation in December 2021, Collister attended a conference in Croatia and presented his work. Afterward, he met NASA scientists, and they invited him to apply for the NASA post-doctoral fellowship.