Geography Pre-Grad Intern Rachel Snavely
When I first heard about the IE Pre-Graduate School Internship from my advisor I was hesitant to enroll. Working all semester with a graduate student or a professor I barely (if even) knew just felt a bit out of my comfort zone. I knew I wanted to grad school, but now that I was entering my fourth year here at the University of Texas I was unsure of what I actually wanted to jump into another 7-8 years of academia and peruse a PhD, just get a Masters, or take a year or two off to work. On top of that, I didn't even know what I wanted to study. These were the main reasons I decided to enroll in the IE program, and I am so glad that I made that decision.
I had no idea what to expect when I started my internship. I had never met my faculty advisor, Dr. Miller, before I emailed her and asked if she would be willing to be my advisor for this program. Aside from the few short emails we shared over the summer, I did not know my graduate student mentor, Niti Mishra, or what kind of research he did. Being someone who likes everything planned out, organized, and familiar I became extremely anxious and slightly frazzled by the beginning of August. But, once the first week of school started and I finally met my graduate student mentor and my faculty advisor I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. During the first couple meetings I had with my graduate student mentor, we mostly discussed what I was studying, what my interests were and what I wanted to get out of this internship. I am currently perusing my bachelors in geography with a focus in geographic information systems and a minor in geology. I have always been interested in earth science and the natural environment and I knew I wanted to stick to that side of geography- I am entirely unenthused about the whole "human" aspect of geography. After doing some research about graduate school and career paths, talking to family friends and colleagues of my father and reading some papers and articles, I knew that I wanted to learn more about remote sensing. Remote sensing refers to the acquisition of information about an object or phenomenon without actually making physical contact with that object. This is essentially done by taking digital images of the earth's surface from airplanes or satellites. However, due to budget cuts and lots of our faculty coincidentally going on sabbatical at the same time, the geography department does not currently offer any courses on remote sensing. I thought that this field of study sounded interesting, and I knew that a lot of graduate schools specialize in it, but I did not want to jump into my graduate studies "thinking" I might be interested in a certain field. I wanted to try to learn all that I could before I began looking at programs more seriously! Because of this, I wanted to use the IE Internship to my advantage and essentially turn it into a basic (very basic) remote sensing course. I told this to my faculty advisor, Dr. Miller, and she flat out told me that while she uses some remote sensing every once in a while she was not the person to teach me. She handed the reigns over to my graduate student mentor and basically split for the rest of the semester. Luckily, Niti is our in-house expert on remote sensing (at least while Dr. Kelley Crews is on sabbatical)!
I spent the first half or so of the semester doing assigned readings from a textbook, doing some practice labs so I could learn how to use the computer software I would be using later on, and having weekly discussions with my mentor to ensure that I understood the material. This alone was a lot of work to get done. I was basically trying to learn all the material for a graduate level course in about 10 or so weeks. Needless to say I was a bit frazzled, but my mentor really worked with me to make sure I understood everything! Next, my mentor and I started discussing working on a small research project. Most of his work focuses on analyzing vegetation so he recommended that I focus on something similar. I was fine with this because, in all honesty, I have absolutely no idea what I am interested as far as remote sensing does. After reading some scholarly articles and doing a bit on online investigation I came up with the idea of monitoring the amount vegetative regrowth that has occurred around Mount Saint Helens since its eruption in 1980. We set a goal of working on this research project and submitting a project abstract to the American Association of Geographers in early December so I could participate in a poster presentation during their annual meeting in April 2014. However, just as I was about to begin my project the government shutdown began. While this did not affect the majority of other students I knew working on research projects, I soon learned that essentially every satellite image I needed to download for my analysis was housed on a government operated website. I was not able to get any of the data I needed for my research and I became very frustrated. My project was at a halt for about two weeks, which really set me back as far as deadlines for AAG go. We only started my actual research portion of the project a little over a month ago, so it is still in its beginning stages. Most of my research thus far has involved gathering my data (remotely sensed satellite images) and preforming some very basic image processing techniques so I can classify and analyze these images further into my research. Basically, my project involves analyzing a series of satellite imagery collected between 1975 and 2013. I am taking these images and classifying them - meaning I am using computer software and lots of statistical algorithms to take every pixel from an image and assigning it to a certain land cover type. Pixels that represent water will be in one class; those that represent healthy, green vegetation will be in another. I also plan to do a few other types of analyses during the spring semester, as I plan to participate in a poster session at the annual meeting for the Association of American Geographers in April. My mentor and I have also discussed potentially working on a research paper later on in my project and trying to get my work published!
Participating in the IE program has had an enormous impact on my academic career. It gave me the opportunity to explore a field of study I otherwise would not have been able to, and it has influenced my choices in furthering my academic career. I know that by working on my research project, participating at a poster session at AAG and potentially getting my work published will open up lots of doors for me when I begin applying to graduate school. I would not have had the opportunity to do any of this had I not enrolled in the IE program and I am I am truly grateful for that.