What’s a Mathematician Doing at SkyTruth?

Alice Foster discovered her love for geology at Brown University, and meandered onto SkyTruth’s path.

My name is Alice Foster, and I started as an intern at SkyTruth this past January. But my journey to SkyTruth was a bit unexpected. I am currently studying applied mathematics at Brown University. And until recently, I was somewhat unenthusiastic about science, although I was interested in conservation issues.

Then, in search of an introductory environmental studies class at my first academic fair, I ended up talking to a professor at the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences table. She convinced me to try out her class, which she said offered a good foundation for understanding environmental issues. In the opening lecture, I was a bit disappointed to learn that the class was about geology; lacking any understanding of the subject beyond an earthquake project in seventh grade, I associated the word with something vaguely boring and irrelevant. But after a few minutes, I was hooked. I found it beautiful to understand how mountain ranges and canyons and plains come into being, and to try to wrap my head around the massive time scales on which geological processes take place. Learning about crystal deformation at a molecular level was fascinating because it could explain how an entire glacier moves. Everything seemed to fit together. Over the course of the semester we applied physics and chemistry, satellite and seismic imagery, and logic to solve Earth’s riddles. 

One of my favorite topics covered in that class was meandering rivers, a concept I identified with. A meander forms a curve in a river: fast-moving water wears away at the outer bank, while sediment transported by slower-moving water amasses at the inner edge, creating a point bar. This process of erosion and deposition makes the bends bendier and the river wander. 

If you look at outcrops on the side of a road, you might spot evidence of ancient meandering rivers. A fast-moving river can transport and deposit large pebbles in its channel. When the water changes course, the former channel becomes part of the river’s floodplain. At times, the river overwhelms its banks and leaves behind sand and clay to overlay the old layer. Some years later, the channel might shift again and deposit larger grains on top of the fine particles. In the rock record, these deposits can appear as beds of shale interspersed with conglomerates.

Alice camping with friends. Photo by Ailita Eddy.

The summer after I took this geology class, I encountered a magnificent meandering river near a farm I worked at in Iowa. Tall trees with lush foliage grew on one bank; a cow pasture bordered the other. I liked to walk down the road to a bridge overlooking the river. I imagined it all playing out: water flowing around the outer edge and loosening soil from the steep bank, bits of rock bouncing chaotically along the riverbed, and the inner bank growing thick with silt. In millions of years, the vestiges of the river might lie deep beneath the ground, compacted, cemented, and turned to stone. 

Since then, my interest in geology and climate science, combined with my love for mathematics, has informed my meandering career exploration. This semester, I decided to take a break from school and homework and experience new things. I wanted to intern at SkyTruth because SkyTruth’s work combines many of my greatest passions, and because I felt excited about contributing to work that could benefit others. It is amazing to see up close how SkyTruth uses geospatial technology to solve tangible problems. I get to think about math and geology while engaging with immediate conservation issues around the world. 

Right now I am working on monitoring bilge dumping in oceans around the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, and Brazil. I am also working with SkyTruth staff to digitize natural gas well pads for a machine learning model. This model will allow SkyTruth to automatically identify well pads in Alaska and Patagonia.

As an intern I have had the chance to learn how to create maps in QGIS and how to program in Google Earth Engine. QGIS is a geographic information system application that can be used to analyze and visualize geospatial data such as satellite imagery or a ship’s track across the ocean. I have also gotten to reflect on what I might want my career to look like. I love getting to be part of a welcoming, supportive, super knowledgeable, all-around wonderful group of people pursuing new projects and ideas. Though I am unsure of my path, this is the kind of environment I will look for as I embark on my career.

Alice made this on a letterpress printer using a linoleum carving block and metal type. “Wild Geese” is one of her favorite poems. She wanted to create an image having to do with the refuge one can find in the natural world. Credit: Alice Foster

New Intern Matthew Ibarra Shifts from Aerospace Engineering to Protecting the Planet from Space

Matthew thought he wanted to be an aerospace engineer when he started college. Then he learned more about environmental damage to the planet.

Hello There!

My name is Matthew Ibarra and I am a new intern at SkyTruth. I am currently a student attending West Virginia University (WVU). Originally I came to WVU to study mechanical and aerospace engineering. I have always been passionate about math and science and so naturally I believed engineering would be a perfect fit for me. I was a part of my robotics team in high school and I believed this would be something I could do forever. 

However, as my time at WVU went on I became much less interested in engineering and I decided that I wanted to study something else. Through my engineering classes I inadvertently learned more about energy and from there about renewable energy sources. I developed a passion for renewables and I decided I wanted to shift my focus of study and work on environmental challenges. I have always felt there is a lot more bad news than good news in the world and I kept hearing about problems such as massive deforestation in the Amazon, pollution of the planet and the oceans — and those were just the tip of the melting iceberg. I wanted to do something that would leave a lasting impact. All of these factors pushed me to change my major to Environmental and Energy Resource Management. And it was the best decision I have ever made. 

Matthew played saxaphone for the WVU marching band and currently plays clarinet in the WVU Concert Band and saxophone in the WVU pep band. Photo by Roger Sealey.

My best friend Amanda’s mother Teri works at SkyTruth as our office administrator, which was very serendipitous for me. Amanda told me about SkyTruth and I was excited to learn how SkyTruth gathers environmental data and conducts research using satellite imagery. I was intrigued because it seemed like SkyTruth worked in all the areas I was passionate about: the environment, technology, and research. I looked into some of SkyTruth’s current and past projects and the ones that excited me the most include FrackFinder, which helps keep track of the environmental impacts of fracking for natural gas. I was also excited about SkyTruth’s interactive maps that help track the removal of mountaintops from coal mining. SkyTruth works on many other projects that I knew that I wanted to be a part of as well. An internship at SkyTruth was the perfect way for me to not only help work on projects I cared about, but also to learn more about what I am interested in.

As an intern I am currently working to monitor the South East Asia region for bilge dumps. Bilge dumps are illegal practices by vessels that attempt to bypass pollution control and dump their oily ballast and waste water at sea. I am collecting useful data that will contribute to a machine learning program that can automatically detect bilge dumps from satellite images around the world. I am also working to update FrackFinder to include data from 2016 and create an interactive map that can easily display information such as natural gas well pad locations in West Virginia, and when they were drilled, to show how natural gas fracking has impacted West Virginia over time.

I am passionate about sustainability and hope to make this central to my career. Sustainability is the notion of living your life in such a way that you leave resources for the people who come after you. After my time here at SkyTruth I hope to go into government work. I would like to work for the Department of Energy in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Fossil fuels will eventually run out and a transition to renewables will help current climate and environmental issues. I feel that it is important to find solutions now and transition our power needs to something that is more sustainable while we are still able to do so. 

Matthew admires Blackwater Canyon in West Virginia. Photo by Matthew Ibarra.

I believe SkyTruth is important in achieving my goals because I am gaining valuable skills and knowledge that I know will help me in the future. I love working with Geographic Information System programs (GIS). GIS is essentially using computers to analyze physical features of the Earth such as measuring forest density or tracking changing temperatures; it has almost endless applications.  I am learning to work with Google Earth Engine which is essentially a super powerful and intuitive way to work in GIS. Earth Engine requires me to be able to code in the programming language JavaScript and so I’m learning that skill as well. These are skills that will be forever relevant in the future and I am excited to deepen my understanding of them.

When I started college five years ago I never thought that I would end up where I am today. I spent so many sleepless nights trying to finish my physics homework and study my chemistry notes. I never thought that I would want to give all that up to work in something completely different, but I am thankful I did. I am eager to be learning something new every day at SkyTruth and I am thankful to everyone who helped me get to where I am today. I am excited to continue my internship here and keep learning more about what’s important to me.

Matthew is a hockey fan and celebrated the DC Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory in 2018. Photo by Photos Beyond DC.

 

 

Johnna Armstrong “Slid Sideways into Tech”

A would-be diplomat discovered she could help others with technology.

Johnna Armstrong had, what she calls, a sheltered upbringing in a rural community in Upstate New York. The oldest of six children, she often had to care for her younger siblings. So when it came time for college she was anxious to learn about other cultures and find out “who I was, separate from my family,” as she puts it. She had no idea when she headed off to the State University of New York at Albany (now called the University at Albany) that ultimately she would end up in the computer field. Now, she serves as SkyTruth’s systems administrator, keeping our systems humming, the website running, and managing the rapidly evolving SkyTruth Alerts system.

Instead, in her college days, Johnna was interested in diplomacy and studied German and political science. She spent her junior and senior years in Germany and almost stayed there: After working in a German vineyard during a school break, Johnna was offered an apprenticeship when she finished school. She wanted to accept the offer but her father wouldn’t permit it. He sent her a plane ticket home and told her “you’ll be on it.”

Johnna in Germany during college.

After a temporary gig with a trade association in Washington, D.C., Johnna landed at the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) – a company that publishes legal and accounting information. She worked in the research department, fielding questions from clients about where they could get answers to various legal questions. Many of the same questions popped up repeatedly and so she made lists of the most common questions and answers. “I got very efficient,” she says, and loved the job because of the research component.

But there was no chance for advancement in her BNA position and she wanted to make a difference, ideally in the nonprofit world. So she began asking colleagues out to lunch to pick their brains about her next steps. 

“What I took away from [those discussions] was that I would need either a law degree or a business degree,” she says. So she enrolled in the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona (which has campuses around the world). She completed a fast-track program for an International MBA with a capstone project on nonprofit management for Catholic Charities. The program required her to take tech courses one semester, which is where she first discovered she excelled at tech. The next semester she became a teaching assistant, helping students with technology problems. She loved it, noting “I slid sideways into tech. The whole idea of helping people really jazzes me.”

After graduation, Johnna headed to Poland with her boyfriend. It was 1991 and the Berlin Wall had just come down. “Half the school was headed to eastern Europe,” she says. “The whole culture and economy –  everything was changing at a rapid pace; it was a very exciting time.” She stayed there for nine months, got two job offers that both fell through and returned to the U.S. when she ran out of money.

She landed back at BNA. But this time she had tech skills and the digital revolution had begun. She got a permanent position in BNA’s tax department, morphing print publications onto CD-roms and eventually moving them online. Her manager Pam Brophy was her mentor – and also a visionary: Pam saw the digital era on the horizon and told Johnna this is coming; this will all be on the web. Tell me what you need [to move materials online] and I will get it for you. Johnna learned programming on the job to make BNA’s materials accessible electronically. “It was a blast,” she says, looking back now.

And, during this period, she met her husband Paul Woods. Paul worked on the same floor. Johnna liked what she saw and asked Paul out. In typical Johnna and Paul fashion, after they got married they spent a year traveling around the world.

When they returned to reality, Johnna and Paul settled in Takoma Park – a DC suburb that kept them close to Paul’s father and Johnna’s mentor Pam, both of whom were struggling with cancer. When Pam lost her battle, “my heart went out of BNA,” Johnna says. She and Paul had started their own business, called BTS, working on web apps, web development and programming  — much of it for nonprofits. And they moved to Shepherdstown, West Virginia where SkyTruth is now headquartered.

Why Shepherdstown? “I had a list,” Johnna says. Their new town had to have an independent bookstore (Shepherdstown has Four Seasons books); an independent coffee shop (Shepherdstown has had several over the years, the funkiest being the Lost Dog), and a small college or university (Shepherd University provides SkyTruth a steady stream of interns). Johnna saw these as indicators of a vibrant, diverse community. She and Paul have remained here since arriving in 2001.

Johnna with Beth O’Leary, a Global Fishing Watch research partner, in the Galapagos Islands in November 2019. Photo by Paul Woods.

Johnna first met SkyTruth President John Amos when he gave a local talk in Shepherdstown in 2004. She and Paul later got to know John better through a local group interested in promoting tech jobs in the area. Although the group eventually disbanded, John and Paul hit it off. At the time, John was SkyTruth’s only employee and he welcomed Paul’s management and tech skills. He invited Paul to join SkyTruth’s board.

During Paul’s board tenure, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and coating seabirds, marine life, and shorelines with deadly oil. John, along with SkyTruth partner Ian McDonald (a professor of oceanography at Florida State University), used satellite imagery to demonstrate that BP and government estimates of the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf were more than an order of magnitude too low. Constant news coverage propelled SkyTruth into the national spotlight and put pressure on the federal government to determine the true amount of oil damaging the Gulf ecosystem.  

Johnna was impressed. She already liked SkyTruth’s origin story – how John had left an industry consulting career to bring satellite imagery to the nonprofit environmental world. With the BP disaster, she saw how SkyTruth had solved a major problem. “It was very easy to determine how much oil was really there,” she says now. “Yet the Coast Guard wasn’t doing it. That [realization] was a very powerful moment for me.” She remembers helping John with one of his many interviews during this time. “It was an interview with Al Jazeera and they wanted to do it by Skype,” she says. “But John wasn’t set up with Skype at that time, so we brought him over to our place and set him up for the interview.”

With new-found fame, SkyTruth obtained the resources to start hiring additional staff. Paul decided that instead of serving on the board, it would be more fun to work for SkyTruth. As Chief Technology Officer, Paul helped create and launch the SkyTruth, Oceana, and Google partnership Global Fishing Watch (GFW), which tracks fishing vessels around the world. Johnna also worked on the GFW launch as a contractor. When GFW became an independent organization, Paul left SkyTruth’s staff and joined GFW as its Chief Innovation Officer (he now serves on SkyTruth’s board once again). Johnna had been doing contract work for SkyTruth already and, with Paul moving on, Johnna saw an opportunity to do more work with SkyTruth.

In particular, after running BTS on her own for a while, Johnna wanted more interaction with people. She enjoyed working with some high profile clients (such as Claire’s Stores in New York, Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, and the University of California at Davis) as well as small nonprofits (including local arts groups such as the American Conservation Film Festival and the Contemporary American Theater Festival). But she was starting to feel like the only time she actually talked to people at work was when they had an emergency or problem. She really liked the people at SkyTruth and liked SkyTruth’s mission. “SkyTruth was fabulous in what it was trying to do,” she says, “putting information out there to do good, keeping data free and allowing other people to confirm or deny it.” She particularly likes SkyTruth’s environmental focus. So she approached John and SkyTruth Chief Operating Officer Jenny Allen about joining the team. They jumped at the chance.  

“Johnna brings a delightfully unique set of skills and experiences to our team,” says Jenny. “She fixes pretty much anything that breaks in our systems and always has a novel work-around in her back pocket. Plus, she can knit you a pair of socks while you’re checking your mail at the post office. She’s everyone’s hero.”

And the world needs all the heroes it can get. “It’s pretty depressing out there,” Johnna notes, contemplating the global environment. “So it feels good to be doing something to help.”

Christian Thomas Works to Protect his Home State of West Virginia

Christian had a choice: The Peace Corps or SkyTruth.  He chose SkyTruth.

“It was no contest,” Christian Thomas told me when I asked him about choosing between the Peace Corps and SkyTruth. Born and raised near Shepherdstown, West Virginia, Christian first met SkyTruth President John Amos at the Shepherdstown Farmer’s Market when he was a student at West Virginia University (WVU). Every Sunday morning in the summertime, Christian helped a local farmer tend a stand that sold meat and eggs to community foodies. When John learned that Christian was studying geography and environmental geoscience, he encouraged Christian to send his resume to SkyTruth.

But it took Christian a while to get around to that. First, he graduated from WVU in the spring of 2014. Then he worked as a cook at Camp Arcadia on the shores of Lake Michigan; a favorite family summer destination when he was a kid. After returning to West Virginia in the winter of 2015, he began volunteering at SkyTruth and soon became a part-time employee.

Then the offer from the Peace Corps arrived, giving him the opportunity to work in Ethiopia for two years as an Environmental Extension and Forestry Volunteer. Offer in hand, Christian asked John if SkyTruth would be interested in hiring him full time. Sure enough, SkyTruth made him a counteroffer. “[SkyTruth] was a direct application of everything I had studied,” Christian told me. And one of his first projects at SkyTruth focused on mining: “things I could see and have impact on,” he said. He jumped at the chance for a full-time position.

“One of my favorite things about SkyTruth is creating data that never existed before,” he said. He pointed to how much he values having his data used by researchers, universities, and other partners to generate scientifically credible results that can influence policy, thereby having real impact on the ground.

Christian leads SkyTruth’s work on mountaintop mining; a common practice in Appalachia in which mining companies blow up entire mountaintops to get at the coal hidden inside, then dump the soil, rock, and other material into valleys and streams below. This practice destroys native ecosystems and can poison the water supply. “West Virginia is beautiful. By not destroying the landscape there are more benefits for the state,” Christian believes.

SkyTruth’s Central Appalachia Surface Mining dataset shows where mining has occurred across 74 counties in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia since 1985. University researchers have used SkyTruth’s data to examine health impacts on nearby communities and conservation groups such as Appalachian Voices have used this data to mobilize activists. Most recently, scientists at West Virginia University published a study in the peer reviewed International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that relied on this dataset to document an association between mining and dementia-related deaths.

“There aren’t a lot of [job] opportunities for West Virginians and what there is often hurts them,” according to Christian. As coal production declines, Christian believes there are better ways for West Virginians to make a living that don’t harm people’s health. “[The beauty] is still there, but we don’t want to lose more,” he said. Some mines are massive, he pointed out — hundreds of acres. “You can see them march across the landscape in the course of a decade.” Christian has seen this firsthand by analyzing countless satellite images. One of the first steps in stopping the process, he believes, is showing how destructive these mines are.

Christian mountain biking in Oregon. Photo by Joe Milbrath.

His next step is looking at reclaimed mine sites. “You can never put the mountains back,” he said. Once mined, the Mountain State’s mountains are gone forever. But he hopes that some previously mined sites can support a native Appalachian forest again if they are reclaimed effectively. “We’re going to quantify how well the land can recover, or has recovered,” he said. This is critical information for taxpayers: Under federal law, mining companies are required to reclaim sites after they are done mining, plus set aside money in bonds to cover reclamation costs. If the mining company convinces state inspectors that recovery is sufficient, they get their bond money back. But if bonds are released for poorly reclaimed sites, communities and taxpayers can be left with denuded landscapes and large restoration bills. Christian wants to know whether real restoration is actually occurring.

His other project work at SkyTruth includes mapping offshore infrastructure in the oceans to help SkyTruth monitor ocean pollution and its partner Global Fishing Watch track fishing vessels. In November 2019, the journal Remote Sensing of Environment published his ocean infrastructure work with coauthors Brian Wong and Patrick Halprin from Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab.

When not saving his beloved West Virginia (or the world’s oceans), Christian spends time outdoors with his partner Amy Moore, whom he’s known since childhood. Amy is lead instructor at the Potomac Valley Audubon Society’s Cool Spring Preserve, and is what Christian calls “an extremely adventurous person,” big into rock climbing, cross country skiing, and white water kayaking. Christian prefers mountain biking, board games, and fly fishing – a family tradition handed down from his mother. But they both enjoy hiking at the nature preserve and, with their shared interest in conservation, make a difference every day in West Virginia.

Christian and Amy at Temperance River State Park, MN . Photo by an anonymous passerby.

Updated 12/5/19.

Teri Biebel Found Her Fit at SkyTruth

Doing Good Through SkyTruth

Teri Biebel was drained and exhausted. Not just from a long shift at the casino where she worked, but from 24 years in the casino industry. She was ready for a change. So one afternoon Teri called her friend Holly at Shepherd University to see if there were any job openings at the school. There weren’t. But Shepherdstown, West Virginia is a tight-knit community, and Holly had spoken with SkyTruth Board Member Paul Woods at a recent Rotary Club meeting. Paul had mentioned that SkyTruth was looking for an office administrator.

“We both didn’t know what SkyTruth did,” Teri says now. “Holly said something like ‘they use radar to do stuff. Let me contact Paul.’” Paul told SkyTruth President John Amos that someone was interested in the job. When John called Teri to see if she wanted to meet. Teri said, “absolutely. I hate what I’m doing.”

Teri grew up in Wildwood, New Jersey, on the beach and not far from Atlantic City. She and her husband Don both worked at the casinos, and Don also served in the Navy Reserve (after a six-year career in active duty). Soon after he returned from his deployment to Kuwait in 2005-2006, Teri and Don took a much-needed vacation together in Hawaii. It was there that they got the call: The casino was downsizing. Don had lost his job.

Both of them soon found work at the casino in Charles Town, West Virginia and settled in nearby Shepherdstown. With two young daughters, they worked alternate shifts. But Teri became tired of taking people’s money. She remembers one customer who won a million dollars, but then gambled it all away and ended up losing everything: his home, his job, and his million dollars.

When John met Teri he was impressed with her professional experience, but also her recent personal accomplishments: Teri had just run her first marathon and lost 60 pounds in the process. “She had a lot of responsibility in her previous jobs at the casinos,” says John. “And we needed someone who could handle that level of responsibility. I was still the only SkyTruth employee at that point, so I needed someone I could depend on.“ The fact that she had trained for and run a marathon “said a lot about her,” according to John, and what she could accomplish.

Teri started in December 2010 and has watched SkyTruth grow from two employees to 10 or more now. She recalls that on her first or second day she attended a SkyTruth board meeting to take notes. That was when she first saw John in action. “When John talks he commands attention,” she says now. “You want to hear more. I never knew this stuff existed, that you could use satellite imagery to track oil spills or anything.” She likes her job at SkyTruth because she learns so much. In addition to her office administration duties, Teri has tracked oil pollution in the ocean using imagery, including the years-long spill at the Taylor Energy site in the Gulf of Mexico. (Thanks to SkyTruth’s dogged tracking of this spill, the Coast Guard finally ordered the company to fix the leak last year.) “This is my ninth year at SkyTruth and I’m still fascinated with all the things that we can see and do and change,” she says.

Perhaps even more importantly, “I feel like we’re helping people. We’re providing this data to help people see what’s going on around them… It’s a huge contrast” from her old job she says. “I feel like I’m doing good now.”

The Biebel family selfie

The move to Shepherdstown has also been good for Teri’s daughters Jenn and Amanda. Both are now students at West Virginia University and are skilled musicians. The band program in the local high school “is second to none,” according to Teri and both her girls benefited greatly from the experience. In fact, Jenn, who plays trumpet, was nominated by her band director in high school, and accepted, into the US Army All American Marching Band. The Army flew her and 124 other American high school students to San Antonio, Texas for a week. They toured the Alamo and the San Antonio River Walk, and then marched at the Army All-American High School Bowl Game (comprised of high school seniors from around the country). “I’m not sure they would have had that [band] experience if we stayed in New Jersey,” says Teri. She wrote about one of her own profound experiences during the San Antonio trip for her blog Snarkfest (a blog she describes as “thoughts from a totally snarkastic Mom”).

And despite a few lapses to raise her girls, Teri has kept running. So far, she has run three full marathons, 21 half marathons and two Tough Mudders. Tough Mudders are 10-mile races with two or three obstacles each mile. Later this month she’ll be running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. for the second time. With her daughters away at college, Teri has found time for long training runs again. She also has discovered that, as she puts it, “being an empty nester isn’t as bad as I thought. I miss all that [childhood] stuff….But my girls are where they need to be. It’s time for me now.”

Note: This post was updated 10/8/19 to correct Don’s time in the Navy.