Tech-savvy sophomore only student on interdisciplinary water study team in Africa
BLACKSBURG — Paige Williams of Radford, Virginia, headed to her interview at Virginia Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology last May hoping to land a part-time job. The next day she had a plane ticket to Burkina Faso. The rising sophomore majoring in environmental informatics in the College of Natural Resources and Environment had just earned a spot on a team conducting field research on multiple-use water services in the West African country.
“Paige was the only student. The rest of the team were faculty,” said Ralph Hall, assistant professor of urban affairs and planning in the School of Public and International Affairs and principal investigator on the project. “That can be very intimidating, but she did really well,” he added.
The interdisciplinary project was funded by Virginia Tech’s Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment. “Accessing clean water poses significant challenges for many communities throughout Africa and beyond,” said Karen Roberto, director of the institute. “Having Paige as part of this highly skilled team has enhanced everyone’s involvement.”
Hall enlisted specialists from several programs at Virginia Tech for the project. The seven faculty team members, four of whom traveled to Burkina Faso, combine expertise in water and sanitation systems, public health, gender issues, statistics, data visualization, and geospatial representation.
He tapped Peter Sforza, director of the Center for Geospatial Information Technology, to help develop a data management and visualization platform to support water services planning.
Since Sforza couldn’t travel with the team, Hall asked him to find a substitute. When Sforza interviewed Williams for a position at the center, he suspected that her classwork inenvironmental informatics had prepared her to take his place on the trip.
“We needed somebody with GIS skills — hands-on, using the software and understanding the data sets,” Sforza explained. “I knew this was the type of student the environmental informatics program would have.”
Williams went to the interview expecting to help with small projects at the center. But when Sforza mentioned the opportunity to conduct fieldwork in Burkina Faso, she immediately volunteered. In the month before the team left for Africa, Hall and Sforza trained Williams for the task ahead.
“We said, ‘this is going to be a real-world experience, and you’re going to have to put some serious work in — we all will,’” Hall remembered. “And she did.”
“On the plane, I was very nervous, like, ‘what did I say yes to?’” Williams admitted. “But as soon as I got there, I thought, ‘I was meant to be here.’”
The team spent 10 days in Burkina Faso. Their goal was to combine community knowledge about water sources with biophysical maps to explore ways to advance the multiple-use water services planning process.
The research is the first step in the development of a decision support platform that they hope will someday enable decision-makers to leverage all available data to create water services that are sustainable and support rural livelihoods.
To learn more about the social dynamics surrounding water use, the team planned to run two 10-person focus groups in the community of Batondo. But when they arrived, they found more than 100 adults and some 40 children waiting.
“It seemed like the whole village was there,” Williams said. “They were so excited to talk to us.”
Williams logged GPS readings at water sources and mapped the results so her colleagues could immediately begin analyzing and sharing the data.
“She was clearly able to pull her weight, which is impressive since she was working alongside faculty while experiencing rural Africa for the first time,” Hall said.
Back on campus, Williams continues to work on the project. For a seminar in October led by Hall and team member Sophie Wenzel, assistant director of the Center for Public Health Practice and Research in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Williams suggested using a mapmaking application to create an interactive presentation. Hall and Wenzel could zoom in and move from site to site on a map Williams built into their slide show.
“This is a good example of how she is bringing a completely new set of skills to the team,” Hall said.
Hall hopes Williams can help forge a long-term research initiative. “She’s now our go-to person for processing data and getting information together,” he added.
Her travels have brought a new dimension to her work at Virginia Tech. “She’s gained a perspective on the world now, and we certainly see an impact in her work,” Sforza said. “Now she’s connecting real people and places. Understanding the cultural context of what we’re doing is really important.”
Hall also remarked that in the time he has known Williams, “she has transformed from a shy undergraduate student to a confident researcher and valued team member,” and he looks forward to “seeing what she can accomplish in the next two years.”
“I’m very passionate about my earth,” Williams said. “I’m a tech-savvy person, so I was ready to do that side. I want to be behind the scenes, solving the problems so people can implement the solutions.”
In addition to Hall, Sforza, and Wenzel, faculty team members on the project include the following:
- Nicholas Polys, director of Visual Computing with the Advanced Research Computing Group and affiliate research professor of computer science in the College of Engineering;
- Venkat Sridhar, assistant professor of biological systems engineering in the colleges of Engineering and Agriculture and Life Sciences;
- Eric Vance, associate research professor of statistics and director of Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis in the College of Science; and
- Emily van Houweling, former associate director of Women and Gender in International Development in the Office of International Research, Education, and Development, currently a visiting assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.