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Researcher of the Month

June 2010

Katherine Schwarting 

Geosciences & Studio Art majors, Class of 2011 
URECA Summer Program 2010

Research Mentor: Dr. Deanne Rogers, Geosciences 

URECA08ExhibitionAs a double major in Geosciences and Studio Art, Katherine Schwarting has a facility and passion for research AND creative activities – and in fact, doesn't view these as two separate cultures or incompatible, conflicting pursuits.  She has excelled in both spheres, and has continued to infuse her art with science, and her science with art, and to seek out creative and analytical challenges that surface in both disciplines. Take the work she exhibited at URECA’s 2009 art exhibition in the SAC Gallery, “Crystals" (sculpture) — a project that was inspired by a mineralogy class Katherine took in spring semester of that year. In her creative project description, Katherine describes her fascination with crystal structures:"...Their colors and variety have the ability to capture the imagination. I would like to create an installation that is my interpretation of crystals. I would like to capture some of EarthandSpaceSciencedisplaytheir beauty and intricacies …I will install them in a floor to ceiling case in the Earth and Space Sciences Building. The case is long enough that it will give the feeling of a landscape. They are meant to inspire those who see the crystals to be interested in the science that they are based upon." 

Working together with Studio Art Professor Nobi Nagasawa, Katharine followed through with her goal to complete a mineralogy-based installation for the Earth and Space Sciences Building that would remain on exhibit for several months in 2009. Asked about the interplay between art and science, Katherine reflects: “I don’t see myself doing art without the science. That’s one reason why I never chose one over the other. Because they both influence me. When I did my crystals, I was hoping people would be inspired to take classes and learn about the different structures that they’re organized in—and the shapes and colors ... ”

Katherine had earlier participated in the 2008 URECA art exhibition which featured a work she had done during a class with ProfessorHowardena Pindell called "Josephine's Feather" (drawing, shown above) that was inspired by a macaw she'd encountered at Sweetbriar Nature Center. For the last 5 years, Katherine, a resident of the 
nearby community of St. James, has served as a volunteer at Sweetbriar Nature Center where she aids in the care and rehabilitation of a variety of animals (including parrots, quail, etc.), as well as educational outreach activities for children.

When Katherine was given the opportunity to start doing research in 2009, after taking a remote sensing class with Professor Deanne Rogers, she immediately volunteered. And so, for the past year, Katherine has been working with her mentor, Professor Deanne Rogers, on a project that involves "Characterizing Vegetation Abundance Trends during 2000-2009 in the Long Island Pine Barrens usingRemote Sensing and Meteorological Station Data"— a project that draws heavily on visual interpretation as well as data analysis. The investigation uses the Moderate Resolution Imaging System (MODIS) sensor aboard the Earth Observing System Terra satellite to obtain the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), an estimate of vegetation canopy density and health for the region. The analysis showed a negative correlation between vegetation abundance and nighttime surface temperatures. This past April, Katherine presented her findings on the project at the Long Island Geosciences Conference, as well as at the on-campus URECA Celebration. This summer, Katherine will continue her work with Prof. Rogers on the Long Island Pine Barrens vegetation abundance project, with support from URECA: she will be expanding on the previous work she started last summer by examining a longer time scale, enhancing the precision of variables, and incorporating other factors which affect NDVI data. 

Reflecting on her undergraduate college years, Katherine is very happy that she came to Stony Brook, and has enjoyed taking a diverse range of classes. She has also enjoyed being involved as vice president of the Undergraduate Geology Club which, as with the Geosciences department, has a close-knit, family atmosphere. Following graduation in spring 2011, Katherine plans to go to graduate school and is considering continuing to explore the use of Remote Sensing tools to do conservation work in the future as well as continuing to merge her art and science interests. Below are excerpts of Katherine's interview with Karen Kernan, 
URECA Director.

The Interview

Karen: Tell me about your current research. 
Katherine: I was taking a class in remote sensing and geology and Prof. Rogers said she had an opportunity to do research on a project last summer, investigating trends in vegetation abundance in the Long Island Pine Barrens using remote sensing and meteorological station data. Right away, I thought it was a great idea. The project dealt with environmental issues. And I‘ve always been interested in nature and conservation. So the research during the summer was a wonderful opportunity to get some background in conservation work and in trying to figure out how climate change is affecting the vegetation on Long Island. It’s also given me more practice with the remote sensing — with processing images, and using the different software and data analysis techniques…

Were you examining data from a particular time period?  
The data goes back to 1973. But we started by focusing on the data from 2000 to 2009. And now, this summer, we want to expand the time period that we used, and look at the earlier data. We want to compare our data with some of the other research that has been done in the same field. … and go through and make sure that our variables (precipitation data, etc.)  are correct. We want to analyze further some of the trends we noticed to see: is this something that follows through, beyond the short term?

What trends have you noticed so far in your data analysis?
There appears to be a negative correlation between nighttime surface temperatures and the vegetation abundance, which may have been caused by drought, infestations, or changes in the respiration rate of the plants due to changes in the air temperature. This is something that will be addressed during the summer work.

How has doing the research project augmented your education? 
It really expanded my range of thinking. I’ve learned to think about these problems and how to focus myself on certain problems. It’s been useful also, just learning how to deal with the data, with errors in the data. For example, there are days when there is no data. How do you make up for it? How do you work with that…? ...It was also really good for me, personally, because it gave me a path to take in the future. Before I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do with the geology major. But now, I can see that I would like to pursue graduate study in the future. I can see that with my previous interests in conservation, and my current work in geology, that I will be able to use the techniques I’ve learned with remote sensing to do conservation work in the future.  That’s the direction I want to go in now.

I know your mentor has been very supportive of you and of these pursuits too!
Yes, and it’s been really great to have one on one experiences with the research. I learn a lot from the advice that my professor, Dr. Deanne Rogers, gives me on how to do different projects, and the goals she sets week to week on the project.

What’s been the high point of your research experiences so far? 
Getting to present the work at the Long Island Geology Conference! I went this past April, and did a powerpoint presentation. I’m not somebody who does a lot of public speaking or usually enjoys it very much. But I challenged myself to do it. And it turned out to be a great opportunity. I got to present the work to people who are interested in the field, and to get a little bit of feedback. It was a really good experience!

You also had a poster presentation at URECA also this past April. 
That was a really good experience too. I had a lot of interesting questions, and talked to people from many different departments. I had people come up to talk to me who knew the Pine Barrens area well and could give me detailed feedback on what they saw going on in the region.

I know you’ve presented at URECA’s art exhibitions too in past years. Tell me a little about that.
I‘ve been working really hard at both the art and the science. And I had the chance to participate in the URECA art exhibitions in 2008 and 2009. The first time was a project I’d done for a class with Prof. Pindell [inspired by a macaw from Sweetbriar] and the second was through a class with Prof. Nagasawa. The second time I exhibited a crystal project I had been working on. It was something I was very interested in, something that really combined my art and my science and was based on crystal structures I had learned about in my mineralogy class. It also led to my doing a large display in the Earth and Space building. It was on view for several months last year and part of the installation that lives on in the Geology Club room.

Do you see a lot of cross-over or connection generally between art & science?
I think I look for it. I don’t see myself doing art without the science. That’s one reason why I never chose one over the other. Because they both influence me. When I did my crystals, I was hoping people would be inspired to take classes and learn about the different structures that they’re organized in—and the shapes and colors and everything.

Your research itself is very visually based.
That was one of the things that really drew me to it in the first place and drew me to the class. I’m used to taking art history classes where you’re looking at images, analyzing the images. That’s something I brought over with me to the remote sensing project, where I’m looking at the images. When we first analyzed the dip in the vegetation, I had seen it on the images… I could see the difference, even though at first it was subtle and didn’t look like anything till you put the numbers in. But then you really realize that what was going on was probably significant.  

You’re also been active as vice president of the Undergraduate Geology club.
We go on a lot of trips. We try to get the students out of the classrooms and see things out in the real world. We take them to caves. I helped organize trips to places like Kentucky and Virginia, to several of the cave systems like Mammoth Caves, and some of the different geological formations well as the Smithsonian museum in D.C. We have social events too, to give students a chance to come and talk to other students who have similar interests. We do tutoring for students and recently had a session for Geology 102 students after being approached by one of the students taking the class. It’s kind of a family.

And you’ve also continued to work as a volunteer at Sweetbriar Nature Center?
Yes, I’ve been there for ~5 years. Since high school. I help care for the parrots and emotionally rehab them. A lot of them were given up by former owners. I help provide the enormous amount socialization, care and time that these birds demand. I also help care for other animals, and I am currently caring for three quail chicks. I spend most of my Saturdays there answering any questions that visitors might have about the animals.

What initially drew you to Stony Brook?
I came here for several classes when I was in high school. And originally, I wanted to come here because astronomy was offered and I wanted to incorporate this interest in my future. At first, I kept trying to decide between the art and science and I could never really make up my mind. I like both of them so much. I took all sorts of classes to get a diverse background including archeology, astronomy, and art history. I enjoy doing all of them. But eventually I found geoscience, which has such range of courses and applications that it united many of my interests.

I'd say SB has worked out for you!
It really has! It’s been an amazing time!  I remember when I first came here and we had the introduction and somebody said: “You can either get through and just have your college experience, or you can really make it something.” And I feel like that’s something that I set out to do from the very beginning here. I was going to become involved in clubs and organizations. I was going try to do research. I was going to do as much as I could to make use of the time. . . The research has definitely given me the ability to kind of do everything—to draw in and connect a lot of my interests. It’s been great!

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