Student attends Google Earth Engine User Summit through WISP

by Emily Sun | 10/10/18 3:00am

It is not every day that people get to see their idols face-to-face. But for Shannon Sartain ’21, that was her reality when she had the chance to meet Rebecca Moore, who works on the team of creators of the Google Earth Engine, at the Google Earth Engine User Summit this summer in Dublin, Ireland.

“I was so starstruck by her,” Sartain said. “I just think she’s the coolest person ever.”

Sartain said she discovered the summit, which took place from June 12-14 in Dublin, while looking for opportunities related to the earth science research she worked on through the Women in Science Project.

“[Google Earth Engine is] directly related to what I did my research for last year, so I just thought it would be really awesome to get to meet a bunch of other people who are using it and the people who developed it,” Sartain said.

Sartain worked with Ph.D. student Evan Dethier and earth sciences professor Carl Renshaw on their research, which looked at rivers all over the world, but primarily focused on the Amazon River.

“The project that we worked on last year with [Sartain] was looking at what happens when two rivers of different types come together and mix,” Dethier said. Sartain began this research as a part of the Women in Science Project program in her freshman winter.

Dethier said that Google Earth Engine provided the research with satellite imagery, which was useful since the researchers could tap into Google’s satellite archive and look at the rivers that were very visually apparent using the program.

“The platform allows us to ask all sorts of questions about the world and how the world works,” he said. “It’s a little bit overwhelming because the questions you can ask are limitless.”

At the summit, Sartain was the second-youngest person of the roughly 250 people there — the youngest being a high schooler. Though she was originally nervous about being surrounded by Ph.D. and post-doctoral students, “it ended up being a really great experience” because she “got to learn more while [she] was there,” Sartain said.

The summit’s activities included workshops on topics like coding, Sartain said. Her favorite part of the experience was the hackathon, which allowed her to work with other students and a professor from the University of Edinburgh on a coding-related project idea.

“It was just really cool to get to work with others in a smaller group and all put our skills together,” Sartain said.

She said that though she had taken coding classes in high school, her research experience was the first time she used code for a real-world project.

“WISP is an amazing program,” Dethier said. “This is the first time I really worked closely for a whole year, basically, with a WISP student. But it’s been an amazing asset for the earth science department and a really sort of great program that’s brought a lot of young vibrancy to the department. It allows kids to [be] exposed to the full gamut of research that happens right from the get-go.”

  WISP director Holly Taylor said that Sartain’s experience at the Google Earth Engine User Summit “is the direct outcome” of WISP and shows that “highly motivated women interested in sciences can give a really strong contribution to the faculty research.”

The fundamental mission of WISP is “to build a community for women who are interested in STEM disciplines,” Taylor said. She added that Sartain’s experience is consistent with this mission.

“I think the takeaway from [Sartain]’s experience is that these first-year women can take their WISP internship experiences and run with [them],” Taylor said. “The things that they learn can have substantial impact on things that they can go on to experience about their later research.”

Correction appended (Oct. 10, 2018): This article has been updated to accurately reflect the location of the summit in Dublin, Ireland.