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Esri Young Scholar Kailey Nichols encourages young women to pursue science

Our annual competition to find Canada’s Esri Young Scholar provides a snapshot of the type of research students are engaged in. An increasing number of applicants are using GIS to explore and address social issues. And like this year’s winner, Kailey Nichols, they have often been inspired by instructors, researchers, and analysts working in GIS.

One of the things I enjoy about our annual competition for the Esri Young Scholars (EYS) Award, outside of seeing the great work that students are doing, is watching the applications come in: How early will the first application be? How many will come in on the last day? How many in the last couple of hours before the deadline? The deadline is always at the end of March or beginning of April, which is a busy time of year for university students and also often overlaps with the ECCE App Challenge, so it’s not surprising that many candidates need every last minute (sometimes literally) to prepare their application.

This year we received 20 applications for the EYS Award. Most were from masters and undergraduate students, and many explored health and social issues, such as substance abuse, emergency care access, impacts of past and future flooding on communities, and bicycle route assessments. Both runners-up conduct research in urban design, albeit from different perspectives. Gonzalo Martínez Santos’ work focuses on optimizing community design, while Hawjin Falahatkar’s work focuses on automatically detecting environmental features from imagery to help design more inclusive spaces.

Kailey Nichols, Canada’s 2023 Esri Young Scholar, is an Environmental Science student at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Although on the surface her research – monitoring coastal restoration – focuses on the natural environment, it also has social implications due to the impacts and risks posed by coastal erosion, sea level rise, and increased storm surges. The specific type of coastal restoration she looked at is managed realignment, which is an example of a nature-based climate change adaptation. In Kailey’s research project, the managed realignment involves shifting a dyke inland and allowing a wetland to be re-established in the area.

As part of her research, Kailey conducted field work in the Converse Marsh in Nova Scotia. When I found out that she would be working in Southampton Island, Nunavut, this summer, I asked her about the similarities and differences between the two projects. Although the projects aren’t related, “there are common themes including restoration and field work. I’ll be working at a site that has heavily contaminated soils, so I foresee different challenges with field work that I haven’t had to consider here in Nova Scotia - mostly safety measures that I haven’t had to consider before because of working with hazardous materials. However, I think that field work in some ways will be easier because I won’t be subject to 30-degree weather, sinky Bay of Fundy mud, and sometimes brutal mosquitoes.”

One of the EYS application requirements is a personal statement describing the student’s experience with GIS and their future plans. (Hint to future EYS applicants: the personal statement is where you can impress the judges with your passion and enthusiasm for GIS!) In Kailey’s personal statement, she talked about being inspired by the women she worked with at CB Wetlands and Environmental Specialists (CBWES Inc.). I asked her to elaborate.   

In your personal statement you wrote you were inspired to see women in science doing amazing work. Would you like to share more about who these women are and the work that they do?

My supervisor, Dr. Danika van Proosdij at Saint Mary’s University, has been an inspiration to many students and colleagues over the last 20 years – not only for her cutting-edge research and dedication to her work in the field of coastal restoration and geomorphology, but for the grounds she has had to trek as a woman in science. Dr. Danika has provided a path for women to follow their dreams by fostering a team in which we are able to thrive and contribute to the field of science.

I have also been inspired by everyone in CB Wetlands and Environmental Specialists as they are Atlantic Canada’s leading experts in coastal wetland restoration and have contributed immensely to my knowledge in this field. I have been so lucky to have been able to learn and grow with their support. My interest and skills in GIS have been cultivated by Jennie Graham and Sam Lewis as their expertise and willingness to teach me has been pivotal in my decision to pursue the field of geomatics. Jennie has been using GIS to inform restoration design for many years and Sam Lewis has advanced the company’s remote sensing through her passion for high accuracy spatial data. I am so excited to be able to continue to learn from them during my Masters this fall.

You will be continuing to use remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS) in your research for your Masters. What are the advantages of using RPAS over other methods of collecting data? Are there any limitations?

One major advantage of using RPAS is the ability to collect data in areas that are inaccessible or challenging to access on the ground. They also offer advantages over other remote sensing imagery such as frequent data collection and high-resolution imagery. Photogrammetric processing of RPAS data allows for the generation of orthomosaics, 3D point clouds and digital surface models (DSMs) which can be used for many different analyses in research and have been instrumental in our understanding of how salt marsh systems within the Bay of Fundy have changed over time.

Oblique photo of the Converse Marsh in Nova Scotia. Realignment of the old dyke is allowing salt marsh vegetation to become reestablished in the tidal wetland.

Oblique photo of Kailey’s study site, captured with a DJI Phantom 4 RTK RPAS.

Although there have been many advancements with using RPAS, there are some limitations. For example, they can be expensive and typically require a licensed pilot to operate the drone. For research in salt marsh environments, some surfaces such as mud flats can be homogenous which are problematic in the photogrammetric process. As a result, there are limitations to when the data should be collected as aerial surveys conducted when sediments are heterogenous (e. g., cracked) allow for more accurate photogrammetric products to be produced. This is important for research as your results are generally only as good as the data you used to generate them.

Is there any advice you’d like to give to women who may be considering a career in GIS/using GIS in their career?

As a young woman in science myself, the impacts of imposter syndrome can be very real and restrictive. I would encourage other women who may be considering pursuing GIS to take the leap because there is so much you can accomplish using GIS. If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a team who is invested in your growth in geomatics the way that I have, it becomes so much easier to grow in the field of GIS and to learn the skills specific to the work.

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Specialist with Esri Canada. Her career in GIS started when she came across the Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering program at the University of New Brunswick and thought it sounded interesting. She earned a PhD in Geomatics Engineering, focusing on lidar data classification, and now she supports teaching and learning with ArcGIS at colleges and universities across Canada. Krista particularly enjoys interacting with the students who receive an Esri Canada GIS Scholarship or apply for the Esri Young Scholars Award each year. She also enjoys playing with apps and doing a bit of coding when she has time.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins