city flood

In profile: Chence Niu and Tingting Zhang, PhD Students

When a natural disaster like a significant flood strikes, affected regions and cities are thrown into sudden turmoil. At a time when people want nothing more than to check up on their homes and their loved ones, they can easily find themselves cut off, stranded for extended periods or with their safety compromised as they attempt to navigate their usual transport routes to reach their destinations.

But it is comforting to know that considering how transport routes might fare in natural disasters is not just an afterthought. At UNSW, PhD students and married couple Chence Niu and Tingting (Tina) Zhang are both exploring how transport resilience can be improved to prepare for these unavoidable natural disasters. While Chence investigates exactly how urban road networks are impacted by disasters and which factors are related to resilience, Tina looks at transport resilience opportunities from an economic perspective, exploring how sound investments can be made now to improve equity and reduce future economic losses.

Chence Niu and Tingting Zhang are both studying transport resilience in natural disasters at UNSW Sydney.Both Chence and Tina acknowledge that frequent floods and cyclones have become a reality and that all transport planning decisions must take this into account.  But while their research is complementary, their paths to this point in their careers have differed markedly.

Chence has a Master of Engineering, so his introduction to resilience was born from an engineering perspective. He studied traffic-related urban emergency management and, before embarking on his PhD, he gained some valuable experience in the impacts of road congestion on emergency response.

“It is of utmost importance to plan for and develop solutions to ensure transport infrastructure resiliency to disasters,” says Chence.

“My research provides a theoretical basis for authorities to make pre-disaster road network investments based on different disaster scenarios, road attributes and budgets.”

Tina, on the other hand, has a Master of Science in Natural Disasters. Her interest in natural disaster resilience and equity began following a trip to the earthquake-ravaged Wenchuan province in 2015.

“When interviewing local affected residents, I found that when faced with limited resources, it was uneven distribution—not scarcity—that was the real source of trouble,” says Tina.

“Consequently, I began to realise that equity is also vital to optimisation, and equity directly impacts the wellbeing of residents.”

Tina and Chence met at Beijing Normal University in 2015 while studying for their Masters degrees under the same supervisor. Tina became interested in transportation when Chence began working in the field and she learnt more about the crucial role transportation plays in our daily lives—particularly under disaster scenarios.

Chence began his PhD at UNSW before Tina, deciding on the University due to its high engineering ranking and abundant resources for scientific research. And it only took one visit for Tina to realise that Sydney was also where she needed to be.

“I remember once I came to Sydney to visit my husband, and that was the first time I had been to Australia. I found his study environment in at UNSW—including the supervisors, the students around him and the surrounding study and life environment—very desirable and fascinating.”

They say that while there are times they might argue about certain aspects of their research, the benefits of them focusing on such similar topics are significant.

“Every weekday after lunch, Chence and I walk around the UNSW campus and discuss our research problems or ideas,” says Tina.

“Because we are both working on resilience we can really understand each other's research, and we’re often able to make helpful suggestions.”

While Chence aims to continue his career in academia, applying intelligent methods like crowdsourced data and autonomous driving to disaster emergency management, Tina plans to take a different course. She hopes to work for the government as a public official and use her research to make a positive contribution to improving the well-being of the residents.

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