University Libraries Data Transformation Lab builds collaboration and enhances research
Taylor Blackman, a second-year master’s degree student in Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, gets excited about geographic information system, GIS. For a month this summer, he is camping out of his truck and studying vernal pools in the uplands of south central Pennsylvania — one of the only places in the ridge and valley area of the state where amphibians can breed.
Vernal pools are seasonal temporary pools that fill during the winter and spring, but may be dry during the summer. They are hard to find in the forest because of their temporal nature, so Blackman follows game trails to locate this source of water for deer, raccoons and other forest creatures.
Blackman uses his GIS knowledge and skills to document the pools and compare their location and water levels over time. This project is a perfect example of Blackman’s combined interests.
“When I completed my undergraduate degree at Penn State in water science and GIS, I was looking for a graduate degree that let me combine field and computer based science. I found that at Virginia Tech,” said Blackman.
As a Navy veteran, Blackman receives Veterans Affairs educational benefits to assist with college costs and was awarded a $5,000 grant from The Austin Excellence Fund for Veterans to support this summer’s research.
However, he was interested in a part-time job during the academic year that used his GIS skills and research knowledge. He realized that the Data Transformation Lab in the University Libraries was a perfect fit. During the 2017-2018 academic year, he was one of the first graduate student workers in the lab and his contributions were immeasurable.
“I started as an hourly wage employee and provided assistance to faculty and students searching for data or just learning the GIS technology,” said Blackman. “I received a request from a fellow graduate student who needed help in analyzing satellite imagery of isolated ponds in Arizona.”
Mary Jade (MJ) Farruggia is a Ph.D. student and an Interfaces of Global Change Fellow in the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. She is studying communities of desert amphibians and aquatic invertebrates in Southeast Arizona. Farruggia’s research is somewhat similar to Blackman’s vernal pool research.
The ponds are so small that the satellite images of them were too coarse to analyze.
“She had the scientific paper and I had the understanding of the software to analyze the images,” said Blackman. “Mary was the one that developed the methodology, and I helped where I could with the software. We came up with a way to look at the imagery at the subpixel level using ENVI software available in the Data Transformation Lab. It was really cool to help her out. What she was talking about in hydrology, I understood because of my own research. She also helped me find a new potential for my project.”
Students working in the Data Transformation Lab include computer science, geography, statistics and soil science majors. Shane Coleman, data curator for the University Libraries and the coordinator of the Data Transformation Lab, said that this type of collaboration happens regularly in the lab that was initially created with the help of internal funding from the University Libraries' Beyond Boundaries Innovation Fund.
“Our original intent for the lab was to help researchers, and then it grew to include our expert students providing support services. This adds an educational component to our student workers’ experience,” said Coleman. “This is an experiential learning environment where our students will walk away with specific job skills and experience in working in interdisciplinary teams to solve problems.”
Blackman said that working in the lab helped him build his interpersonal communication skills with those from other backgrounds and areas of expertise.
“Many times our classes are homogeneous. This gives me an opportunity to learn from other researchers and apply my GIS knowledge and skills,” said Blackman.
“What makes us successful is that we have people in here with different backgrounds who can help patrons articulate their needs in order to find solutions,” said Coleman. “We have the expertise in technology to help them.”