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Image Processing Scientists Find Love on a Turkish Salt Lake

Released: 11-Feb-2014 12:00 PM EST
Source Newsroom: South Dakota State University
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Newswise — When Dennis Helder, director of the South Dakota State University Image Processing Lab asked imaging engineer Larry Leigh if he wanted to spend four weeks in Turkey as part of an international calibration team, finding a wife was the last thing on Larry’s mind.

“I’m always up for international travel,” he says. In August 2010, Leigh and Helder represented the United States as part of a 10-nation team that took sensor readings on Tuz Gölü Lake, one of the largest salt lakes in the world. The Tubitak Uzay-Turkish space agency hosted the mission led by the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites, known as CEOS. The SDSU team was sponsored by NASA.

As a research scientist for the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency in Thailand, Morakot Kaewmanee saw the CEOS mission as a chance to learn about satellite calibration from world experts. She was in charge of satellite calibration, data acquisition and product quality at the Thai space agency.

Differing viewpoints
Larry admits to being intrigued with the young Thai scientist whom he thought was likely in her 20s—from a professional standpoint, he adds. Larry, who was 35 years old at the time, says, “I had dated younger women before and had no interest in doing it again.”

Morakot had her own view: “He was old, way too old,” she says, estimating Larry to be 45 to 48 years old. Not until they started communication via e-mail and became Facebook friends a few months later did they realize that Morakot was one year older than Larry.

In April 2011, the two saw each other at the Tuz Gölü campaign follow-up meeting in Toulouse, France, which allowed Morakot and Larry to get to know each other on a personal and professional basis. Then in January 2012, Morakot invited him to visit Thailand-- knowing how intrigued Larry was by international travel, he says. She had quit her job at the Thai space agency and anticipated taking a year off.

Coming to South Dakota
During their sightseeing excursions, Morakot said that she’d like to “try something different” career-wise. Larry then asked whether she might consider becoming a visiting scientist at South Dakota State. “She didn’t quite believe me,” he recalls. But Larry called Helder and within a few days, Morakot had a job offer.

“It starts in two or three months, if you want it,” Larry told her. Morakot thought the position was only for three months, but soon found it was a one-year position. She came to South Dakota in March 2012; Larry proposed Sept. 26, 2012.

A month earlier, he had bought the ring, “but I wanted the moment to be spontaneous,” he says. His problem, he admits was “figuring out how to force a spontaneous moment.”

Offering a solution
At their customary Wednesday date night, they had just finished a five-course dinner and were having dessert, when Larry recalls Morakot wondering what she was going to do in six months when her stay at SDSU was over.

“She didn’t know where her life was heading,” he says, so in typical engineering fashion, “I said I could solve that problem for her and dropped the box with the ring in it on her plate.” He followed that up with “Would you?”

Morakot recalls the query as a statement: “Here you go.”

“I would have preferred a little more romance,” Larry says with a laugh, “but it seemed like the right situation.”

At work, Morakot discovered that all their colleagues in Daktronics Engineering Hall knew he had been carrying the ring around for a month. “It’s about time” was the common response.

A week later, physics assistant professor Dave Aaron, who works with the image processing lab, had Larry propose on bended knee at the calibration site at 3M during an overpass of Landsat 7, Morakot recalls.

Marrying in Thailand
They were married Nov. 2 in Morakot’s hometown in northeastern Thailand. Approximately 100 close friends and family, including Helder and his wife, attended the traditional Buddhist wedding ceremony that Morakot’s aunt hosted in her home.

“My aunt, sister and mom just made it happen,” says Morakot.

Larry adds, “I was excited to let someone else plan the wedding.” They hope to have a reception for their friends and family here this spring.

Morakot has extended her visiting scientist position and the couple plans to stay in Brookings for the next decade. Then, Thailand will become their home.

The next step for Larry is learning Thai, which is a tonal language. With 44 consonants, each having five different tones, and 21 vowels, he’ll have his hands full.

“And I’m still learning English,” Larry adds.

About the SDSU Image Processing Laboratory
The SDSU Image Processing Laboratory was started in 1988 to conduct research in satellite image processing. Research focuses primarily on radiometric characterization and calibration of satellite and airborne visible and near infrared remote sensing imaging systems. The lab works with the Landsat series of sensors but also has experience with high resolution commercial sensors such as Ikonos, Quickbird, and Orbview, RapidEye, Thaichote, and other moderate resolution sensors such as ALI and Hyperion. The lab works primarily with USGS EROS (Sioux Falls, SD) and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, MD). Other areas of research include estimation of sensor point spread functions (or modulation transfer functions) and geometric characterization of sensor systems. For more information, contact

About South Dakota State University
Founded in 1881, South Dakota State University is the state’s Morrill Act land-grant institution as well as its largest, most comprehensive school of higher education. SDSU confers degrees from eight different colleges representing more than 175 majors, minors and specializations. The institution also offers 29 master’s degree programs, 13 Ph.D. and two professional programs.

The work of the university is carried out on a residential campus in Brookings, at sites in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City, and through Cooperative Extension offices and Agricultural Experiment Station research sites across the state.

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