In Dublin, an Undergraduate Dives Into Big Data

Shannon Sartain ’21 attends the Google Earth Engine User Summit 2018.

“Google Earth Engine is like Google Earth on steroids,” says Shannon Sartain ’21, having returned from Dublin, where she participated in the Google Earth Engine User Summit 2018. 

“It was amazing,” says Sartain, who is from Long Island, N.Y. “There were about 250 people attending. I went to workshops run by the people who had actually created Google Earth Engine and they gave us insight into how things are working behind the scenes.”

Sartain was introduced to Google Earth Engine as a Women in Science Project intern under the guidance of WISP Director Holly Taylor. “Shannon’s experience showcases the opportunities that can open up to undergraduates who engage in research,” says Taylor.

Sartain describes herself as “math and science inclined, and really caring about the environment.” As a WISP intern, she worked with Professor of Earth Sciences Carl Renshaw and PhD student Evan Dethier, employing satellite imaging to detect changes in the Amazon River. Her project used Google Earth Engine to observe what happens when two rivers come together with different sediment loads, and the factors that influence how they mix.

Google’s website describes its system as “a planetary-scale platform for environmental data analysis, an invaluable tool for students to deepen their knowledge of the implications of climate change. It provides access to a large database of satellite imagery and the computational power needed to analyze those images.”

Sartain appreciates the way Google Earth Engine puts everything in one place online. “It’s really impressive because of the computing power the system has, and it doesn’t require additional software. It all happens online on their servers, and it uses all the data and imagery that Google has accumulated from everywhere.” 

As a first-year student with just a few months’ experience with Google Earth Engine, Sartain was somewhat apprehensive about attending the summit. But her Dartmouth mentors encouraged her to go, and with funding from the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society and SELF (Student Experiential Learning Fund), she headed for Ireland.

“I didn’t really know what to expect and I was very nervous,” says Sartain. “I thought I would be the youngest person there, and then I found out there was a girl from high school. I received lots of encouragement about being there at a young age, which really made me feel validated, especially going in there with some doubt.”

In addition to the workshops, she took in some short presentations—three-minute ‘lightning talks’—that gave attendees a chance to hear how other people were using Google Earth Engine. And there were hackathons—collaborative problem-solving exercises—that provided opportunities to interact in smaller groups. 

“At the hackathons, researchers would propose research problems, small groups would work together for a day, and then present their findings to an audience. There were 12 to 15 of these projects going on concurrently,” says Sartain. “I worked on an Arctic dataset proposed by a University of Edinburgh geosciences professor.”

One of the most important parts of the trip for Sartain was the chance to speak with other women at the conference. “I was not only learning about what they did in their work, but I was able to speak with them about their experiences as women pursuing technology careers,” she says. 

Sartain came away from the conference even more committed to her pursuits. “I definitely want to be an earth sciences major,” she says. “It is the best fit for me in terms of looking at the planet, how it is changing, and the relationship between people and the earth.”

Joseph Blumberg can be reached at [email protected].