From a small town in China, engineer helps lead UF/IFAS AI programs to new heights

Changying “Charlie” Li comes from humble roots. He was born in the tiny town of Balikun – population about 10,000 – in northwestern China.

Now, he’s a new UF/IFAS professor of agricultural and biological engineering, and he’s taking on an administrative role as UF/IFAS artificial intelligence (AI) administrative coordinator.

Li serves as an example that a person from a small town and with a modest background can work to change the world in big ways. He credits his parents for inspiring him to always learn.

“Although they did not have the opportunity to go to college, both were the cream of the crop of their classes, and they instilled their love of knowledge in me,” said Li. “In particular, my father’s curiosity about how things work and his passion about science are infectious.”

Li remembers the time his father saw a stereogram – an optical illusion of depth created by a flat, two-dimensional image. It was printed on the back of a magazine. Li’s dad spent a few days figuring it out and taught his son how to make his own stereogram.

Li’s middle-school math teacher saw him as one of his best students and played a significant role in sparking his interest in math, building his confidence in developing a career in a field in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Of his middle-school math teacher, Li said: “He explained math concepts in crystal-clear fashion. He always had faith in me.”

Li earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural and bioenvironmental engineering at China Agricultural University in Beijing.

As he was finishing his third year of college, Li was selected by the university as one of the top five undergraduate students to spend about six months in Norway, studying modern agriculture.

“During my time in Norway, I stayed with a welcoming family and interned at a modern greenhouse farm that was fully automated,” Li said. “The experience was truly eye-opening and awe-inspiring. I was amazed by the level of precision and efficiency that was possible with the use of advanced computer and control technologies in agriculture. This experience was a turning point for me, and I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in the United States, focusing on precision agriculture.”

He earned his Ph.D. in agricultural and biological engineering at Penn State.

Li then spent 16 years rising through the academic ranks at the University of Georgia. From 2018-22, he was the founding director of the Phenomics and Plant Robotics Center at UGA.

Charlie Li, left, with Rui Xu, a former doctoral student at the University of Georgia. They’re testing  their custom-built autonomous peanut phenotyping robot in 2022. Courtesy, Charlie Li.

But last year, UF/IFAS came calling with an offer he couldn’t refuse. His position focusing on agricultural AI with research, teaching and administration appointments fits him like a glove.

“I am excited to have the opportunity to collaborate with other researchers and help build a vibrant AI community at UF/IFAS. I believe that UF/IFAS has the potential to be a national and international leader in agricultural AI,” Li said. “UF is a top 5 public research university and UF/IFAS is one of the largest land-grant institutes of its kind in the nation. In particular, the agricultural and biological engineering department is one of the strongest in the nation with a rich history — this year marks its centennial celebration — and a group of high-achieving scholars. I feel privileged to join this department.”

Li is already thinking long term. He wants to develop agricultural AI and automation technologies to ensure an efficient and resilient agricultural food chain to support the growing world population.

“My students and I are developing innovative AI-driven robotic technologies to address pressing challenges facing modern agriculture,” he said. “Those include breeding resilient and climate-smart crops, mitigating labor shortages and minimizing postharvest food losses.”


The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.  |  @UF_IFAS

About AI at UF

The University of Florida is making artificial intelligence the centerpiece of a major, long-term initiative that combines world-class research infrastructure, cutting-edge research and a transformational approach to curriculum. UF is committed to building the nation’s first AI University by offering artificial intelligence courses to all students in its 16 colleges through our AI Across the Curriculum program. Our faculty and students can analyze vast amounts of data that can impact our country’s biggest challenges with HiPerGator, the most powerful, university-owned supercomputer in the nation.


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Posted: April 10, 2023

Category: UF/IFAS
Tags: Agricultural And Biological Engineering, Artificial Intelligence, Charlie Li, China, Norway, Phenotypes, Precision Agriculture, Robotics, STEM, University Of Georgia

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