Volume X, Issue 2 | April 18, 2024

A Map Made in Heaven

For geography/GIS professor Jing Liu, every day is Earth Day. She has helped create GIS offerings at the college, and passes on her palpable love for the earth.

SMC In Focus


After Jing Liu finished college at Beijing Normal University in 2007, she biked home with her dad. 

The 400-mile road trip from Beijing to China’s Henan province took four days. They documented the ride, snapping photos of sign posts and milestones along the way. Every night they camped by the roadside. 

The same trip, by rail, would have taken just five hours. 

But for Jing, it was never about speed. It was about the great outdoors and geography and soil. Factor in her fascination with geographic information systems (GIS)the subject Jing has been teaching at SMC since 2015—and it makes perfect sense that she bicycled home from college.

In a relatively short time, Jing’s quirky interests have moved  the Earth Sciences Department forward.

When she joined the faculty nine years ago, there were only two GIS courses in the catalog. Today, there are five: Introduction to GIS, Intermediate GIS, Introduction to Cartography, Introduction to Remote Sensing, and GIS Applications. Collectively, they enroll more than 100 students a year. The three new courses, all designed by Jing with help from geography professors Vicki Drake, Pete Morris, Bill Selby and other Earth Science Department colleagues, paved the way for two certificate programs that churn out about 20 newly minted GIS professionals a year. 

Jing teaches all five GIS courses, plus three introductory courses: Physical Geography (GEOG 1), weather and climate (GEOG 3), and Physical Geography with Lab (GEOG 5). 

“I love teaching,” says the 39-year-old SMC professor. “When I stand in front of a class, I feel so excited. I love sharing my knowledge about geography and GIS. The best part of teaching,” she adds, “is seeing the light in my students’ eyes. I feel my work has value and that l am valued.” 


Jing’s students do indeed value her. 

“I really look up to Professor Liu,” says alum Tyler Mathews, 32. “She’s really patient with students. When you’re learning a new skill, it can be intimidating and frustrating, but Professor Liu is always very positive and encouraging.” 

Tyler is now in his last semester at USC Price School of Public Policy en route to a master’s in urban planning with a focus on transportation. 

His educational road has been a windy one. 

Originally from Indianapolis, Tyler had earned an MFA in film from Chapman University and was working in the entertainment industry when he discovered his true calling. 

“I realized I wanted to have an impact on climate change and sustainability,” he says—so he decided to apply to grad schools. To burnish his applications and “show schools I’m serious about pursuing this path,” he enrolled in two GIS courses at SMC, plus additional coursework in economics and statistics. 

The strategy seems to have worked. He’s currently winding up his capstone project at USC Price, focusing on traffic collision data related to the Pico Rivera 2035 initiative. 

Tyler has kept in touch with Jing, periodically asking for her feedback on grad school projects. “I use GIS to make maps for all my reports,” he says. “What I learned with Professor Liu has been very helpful. I’ve also been talking to her about job prospects and where I should be looking.” 

Lauren Hartz, 27, is another former student who values Jing. 

“She’s such an incredible instructor,” says the Scripps College grad, who now works for the City of Santa Monica managing its geospatial assets. 

Lauren had studied biology at Scripps, aspiring to be a field biologist. But upon graduating, she discovered that entry-level field biology jobs require GIS skills—something her undergraduate program had neglected. So like Tyler, Lauren came to SMC’s looking to beef up her resumé. 

“I didn’t think I would take more than one or two GIS classes,” Lauren says, “and then I ended up taking them all.” Hooked, she went on to earn a master’s in environmental science with a geospatial focus at Cal State LA. 

She’s grateful for the connections she made through the GIS certificate program. It was Jing who turned Lauren on to a volunteer opportunity with Santa Monica that led to her current job.  

“The reason I was able to even get my foot in the door is very much because of Jing and the things she does in her classes,” she says.  

Lauren is already paying it forward. Last semester, she was a guest speaker in an introductory GIS class at SMC, speaking about her work for the city. 

 “I know if I ever need anything at all professionally, Jing will go out of her way to help,” she says. “It’s really reassuring to have that kind of person in your life.” 


Jing was born in Kaifeng, an ancient Chinese city of 4.5 million. As a child, she loved the great outdoors and would spend her weekends and summers hiking scenic vistas with her parents. She fondly recalls a family cycling trip around the 250-mile perimeter of Qinghai Lake, China’s largest saltwater lake and a Unesco World Heritage site. (When her parents came to visit Jing in America, she took them to Yellowstone.)  

An academically gifted first-gen student, Jing attended China’s top teacher’s college, Beijing Normal University. She excelled in every subject, but focused on geography because she loved how all the courses included field trips. 

Jing stayed on at Beijing Normal for her master’s in geography in collaboration with the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Upon the advice of her mentor, A-Xing Zhu, she enrolled in the PhD program at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was a tenured professor. 

Eager to begin her teaching career, he started working at SMC two years before finishing her doctorate. Seeing a job listing in 2015, she says, “I just applied, and I was so lucky. I found they liked me.” Having thrived as a TA at both Beijing Normal and UW, Jing knew she’d be happy at a community college. 

However, Jing also enjoys academic research, and she has continued to publish journal articles in predictive soil mapping, the area of her dissertation and expertise. She collaborates on this research with former UW colleagues, and is active in the American Association of Geographers and the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS), serving on the latter’s executive board and its Committee for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. In the fall, her research group will present a new paper at the NACIS national conference in Tacoma, Washington. 

Closer to home, Jing is faculty advisor to the SMC Earth Science Club and a board member with UCLA Friends of Geography, a connection that lets her tap into the Bruin network to give SMC transfer students a leg up. 


Jing’s teacher-student relationships often spill into her private life.  

“I have very close relationship with my students,” she says, “and many have become my friends.” 

People like community gardener Randy Ziglar and climate activist Cris Gutierrez. These two former students first turned Jing on to organic gardening. Both have plots at the Santa Monica Community Garden, and Jing regularly pitches in as their helper. Jing subsequently earned a master gardener certificate at the Ishihara Park Learning Garden, where she also volunteers. 

At home, Jing grows green onions and beans on her balcony. The avocado tree she started from a seed now graces the entrance to her apartment building near Woodlawn Cemetery, and she plans to donate the oversized jujube tree she started in a pot to SMC’s Organic Garden. 

Another former student, Petra Nichols, is Jing’s hiking buddy. They meet up regularly in Griffith Park. After taking Jing’s classes, Petra went on to earn a master’s in geographic information science at Cal State Northridge and currently works at its Center for Geospatial Science Technology. 

When she left China, Jing admits she was not too worried about climate change. Since coming to California, however, she’s become a true believer. Though she owns a car, she rarely drives it. 

“I always walk or bike everywhere,” she says. She starts each day with a brisk ocean swim, accompanied by Randy, a retired lifeguard, as her coach. 

Through Cris, Jing has connected with the nonprofit Climate Action Santa Monica, which Chris co-founded and co-chairs. Jing now serves on CASM’s advisory board. 

“I feel this urgency to act—to do something, especially as an educator,” she says. 

So Jing weaves climate-related examples like wildfire frequency, hurricane prediction, Santa Ana winds and drought and soil moisture correlation into her GIS training. Of course, she offers extra credit to students who sign up for Sustainable Works seminars. (See related story.) 

“I feel a need to educate our students to be concerned now, and to act now—because they will be most impacted in the future,” Jing says. “Seriously, we need to save our planet.” 

 * * *