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Humans of NCEI: Elliot Lim

Text "Humans of NCEI" over a collage of images of different NCEI employees
Courtesy of NOAA NCEI

Here at NCEI, we aren’t just data—we are people. In our Humans of NCEI series, meet the awesome minds that manage one of the largest archives of atmospheric, coastal, geophysical, and oceanic research in the world. Get to know Elliot Lim, an Associate Scientist with the U.S. Extended Continental Shelf Project and the Digital Elevation Modeling team. 

Courtesy of Elliot Lim


What is your job title?

Associate Scientist.

What is your specific area of expertise?

Geographic Information Systems. 

What was your first job? How did it prepare you for your current position?

My first job was working at my parents' dry-cleaning business. We came to the U.S. from Korea, and watching them build their business in a new, unfamiliar country taught me the values of resilience, creativity, and people skills. 

How did you end up at NCEI?

Funny story! As a student majoring in Geography at University of Colorado Boulder I originally applied for an internship at the Solar and Terrestrial Physics Group within NCEI. Unfortunately, I blew it when the interviewer showed me a picture of a sunspot and I couldn't identify what it was! Rather than give up on me, he took me over to meet Susan McLean in the Marine Geophysics and Geology Division. She offered me an internship digitizing images of tsunami events and producing cartographic images. After my internship, I was hired on as a member of the Digital Elevation Modeling team to support tsunami inundation modeling. The rest is history! 

What does a usual workday look like for you?

I'm lucky to be a member of two projects - the U.S. Extended Continental Shelf Project  and the Digital Elevation Modeling team, which means there's a lot of variety in my day-to-day life. On a given day, I may be performing spatial analysis to delineate the extent of the U.S. continental shelf or generating high-resolution digital elevation models to support coastal inundation modeling.

What question are you asked most often when someone finds out what you do? How do you respond?

People usually say something along the lines of, "Who needs geographers - hasn't everything already been mapped?" My response is that the surface of Mars is more thoroughly mapped than the Earth's ocean floor. 

What sort of training and education would one need for your job?

Minimally, a degree in geography, geology, or computer science, and strong programming skills.

What inspired you to pursue a career in your field?

I've been fascinated by maps since I was a child (I even won a contest in grade school for a map I drew of the U.S.). Space affects most aspects of our lives, so I love how relevant geography is to everything. Geography also gives me a lot of perspective as I'm often thinking in different scales for time and space. 

What projects are you working on now? Are there any upcoming projects that you are excited about?

Currently, I'm building Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) for the Mariana Islands and post-Hurricane Irma DEMs of South Florida. I'm also finalizing over ten years of spatial analysis for various U.S. coastal margins as part of my work with the U.S. Extended Continental Shelf Project. 

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

I've been fortunate to travel to the far corners of the globe during my time at NCEI. I got to spend time aboard research vessels in the Arctic and the South Pacific collecting and processing bathymetric data (I even saw a polar bear!). I was also able to travel to Tanzania for the Summer Academy on the Continental Shelf, where I learned about scientific and legal aspects of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

What challenges have you had to deal with in your career?

There are always exciting developments in GIS technology, so I try to stay current and keep abreast of new tools.

Who are you outside of your career?

Having grown up in Colorado, I have a deep appreciation for all the state has to offer. I enjoy fly-fishing, taking my raft out for adventures, and going for camping trips with friends and family.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about you?

I have a wonderful three-year-old son, Lucas! He knows I'm a geographer, so every time he sees a map, he says, "Did Daddy make this?"


Hana, an eight-year-old golden retriever and premier fishing buddy.