University of Kansas doctoral candidate in geography, James Coll, was recently awarded a KU Field Station Award, a Graduate Research Competition Award, and a COMET grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We sat down with him to ask a few questions about his interest in geography and what drives his research.
You received awards in the spring 2018 semester for three different projects. What is the main focus of your work – what drives your research?
I did. Some, (my committee) would say I’m too scattered. The theme which underlines my research is water. I thoroughly enjoy quantifying and visualizing the state and fluxes of the water cycle, particularly surface waters. I’m also really driven by applications of science and technology for solutions.
Can you tell us a little more about your research?
If my research succeeds, I like to say that I’ll be able to tell you whether or not your house will be under water tomorrow. To do that we need to be able to correctly forecast how much water is in the river, and where that water will go. This means we need to know what level of terrain detail is needed to accurately model the flood, and how to go about collecting that level of detail. To do this, I use a combination of state-flown lidar, augment that with my own data collected with a drone, and the shape of the river bed which can be collected with fancy instruments called Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers (ADCP). That data goes into geographic software where we process it, and then into hydraulic models where we model the flood extent and then compare that with observations. This validation helps us understand the theories of fluid dynamics more completely and has practical implications in hydraulic design and flood management.
What about the future of the field of geography excites you most?
It may be a biased perspective, but I really do think the geographic field has the tools we need to address and resolve a great many of the issues we face as we look towards the future. Despite, or perhaps because, geography is such a broad discipline, it has the potential to readily absorb the latest and greatest advances in other fields and use them to tackle issues they would otherwise not be used for.
As an example, although drones and drone research has traditionally resided within the realm of aerospace engineering, geography has taken it and applied that for use in archeological mapping, remote sensing applications, and photogrammetric techniques. Fun fact: geography is the only department in KU that has a class which requires you to fly a drone to pass, drone mapping.
What are your career plans?
Can we make it through the week? (Laughs). At this point I’ve come a little too far into academia to not consider being a professor and the idea of directing my own research agenda is certainly appealing. However, my research has enabled me to pick up some fantastic skills that translate well into the private sector and I’ve met some outstanding individuals at NOAA, the National Weather Service, and the Army Corp of Engineers. So, I guess we’ll see.
What led you to Geography and why did you choose the University of Kansas?
Geography sits at the sweet spot between theory and practice, where I could bring my environmental science and policy skills together with technology and application to ask the questions I am interested in. I landed at the University of Kansas because they provided the best funded opportunity and were incredibly supportive of my sometimes very disparate research questions.
If you had advice for freshmen or others investigating majors, why do you think they should explore geography?
First and foremost, you should do something you are passionate about or, at the very least, you enjoy. That being said, you’ll be hard pressed to not find some aspect of that in the KU Department of Geography and Atmospheric Science. Like computers and data science? Geographic information science and atmospheric modeling sits at the bleeding edge of big data and computational complexity and some of the slickest applications are map driven (think Google maps or Pokemon go). Like policy or the more social aspects? Geography works at the forefront of qualifying and quantifying social injustice issues. Finally, regardless of what aspect you’re interested in, geography and atmospheric science majors are some of the happiest and most inclusive group of folks you’ll ever know, and there’s never a dull moment around them.
You were president of the GIS Day at KU committee last year and led the event. Why is GIS Day and GIS technology important?
GIS day is a worldwide event held every year in mid-November, in celebration of and to raise awareness of the wonders of geographic information science. The committee consists of students from several departments, KU Libraries, and the KU Institute for Policy & Social Research, and we take over the 4th floor of the union all day and host invited speakers, a job and information fair, activities, and a student poster competition. This free event brings together students, faculty, and the greater public to see how GIS is making a positive change in the world. Last year was the first time we had a high school class attend with fantastic results, and we had expanded participation this year, which was great.
Learn more about GIS Day at KU at gis.ku.edu