Geography & GIScience grads navigate a year of research and upheaval

June 21, 2021


Students celebrate their graduation with research presentations, awards, and words of wisdom from department leaders.

By Sarah Steimer

Students in the Geography and Geographic Information Science program should expect to gain a new understanding of place through their studies. But this year’s graduating class — who celebrated their accomplishments via Zoom on June 7 — gained an entirely unique perspective on their sense of place as they mapped, modeled and analyzed the world from their respective homes, many far from the University of Chicago campus.

Marynia Kolak, the associate director for Health Informatics in the Center for Spatial Data Science, along with Jamie Gentry, senior program manager in the Division of Social Sciences, highlighted those special circumstances during the celebration. They paid special note not only to the impact of the pandemic, but also to the civil and social unrest of the past year.

It was evident that such events had an impact on the students, some even focusing their research on the effects of such upheavals and inequalities. One student analyzed traffic safety as fewer cars were on the road during the pandemic, while other students dove into data surrounding gentrification in the U.S. and Germany.

Regardless of the adversity the students faced while studying, the emphasis of the event was on their work and successes — including collaborations, grants and awards across the Geography and GIS team. These highlights included:

  • Expansion of the Center for Spatial Data Science team, including Qinyun Lin, a postdoctoral scholar; Dylan Halpern, principal software engineer of the U.S. Covid Atlas; and Susan Paykin, senior research specialist.
  • New collaborations with University of Wisconsin, Madison; University of California, Berkeley; Northwestern University, University of Illinois at Chicago; and County Health Rankings.
  • Student Isaac Kamber’s first place win for his work on an air quality dashboard at the 2021 American Meteorological Society conference.
  • Facebook ​Community Impact Microgrants to Cyrus Caughey and Lorenz Menendez for a project related to the Tobler Society and a new project they are doing as a Youthmapper chapter.

The celebration also included the announcement of an award and a new micro grant:

  • Spatial Data Science Grant (made possible via Giving Tuesday donations) awarded to Amy Tian.
  • Geography Thesis Award presented to Clyde Schwab.

In addition to the highlights and presentations on the students’ work (outlined below), the event included questions and encouragement from Neil Brenner, the Lucy Flower Professor of Urban Sociology; Sabina Shaikh, director of the Program on Global Environment; and Julia Koschinsky, executive director of the Center for Spatial Data Science.

“It's very important to get clear, both in the research and as a consequence of the research, what the theoretical, political, and normative orientations are,” Brenner urged. He asked the students to consider why they care about their particular lines of inquiry — and how the technical analysis of spatial patterns inform and even destabilize some of the normative assumptions they had going into their research.

Koschinsky built on Brenner’s comments, underscoring the need to become aware of the normative assumptions everyone has — and how technical tools can be used to confirm biases, rather than testing assumptions. “One of the benefits of scientific reasoning is to try to prove ourselves wrong,” she told the students, “instead of proving or trying to just confirm when we are right, and then we stop doing the analysis.”

Similarly, Shaikh told the students that it’s common to choose a research topic that they care a lot about and may have very strong opinions on. But the strengths of their study could lie in being open to being proven wrong, or perhaps finding something surprising and different than what they expected.

The students’ work, presented in five-minutes lightning talks, highlighted research that included:

  • “Wakhan on Sunshine​: A Spatial Analysis of Pastoralist Movement in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor​” by Isaac Kamber​.
  • “Exploratory Spatial Data Analysis of Oyster Depletion in the Chesapeake Bay: An Effort to Recommend Reef Restoration for Dead Zone Mitigation” by Erin Abott.
  • “Politics and Experience in the Velha República: The Brazilian Army and the Conflicts of the 1890s” by Jack Schwab.
  • “Network Analysis, Change in Traffic Patterns Post the COVID-19 Pandemic” by Smrithi Sharma.
  • “Building a Selective Permeability of Space: Urban Renewal and the University of Chicago Campus Shuttle System” by Marc David Loeb.
  • “Gentrification in Berlin: Program Evaluation of Protection Areas Using a Novel Process-Based Approach” by Clyde Schwab.
  • “Urban Bicycle Infrastructure and Gentrification: A Quantitative Assessment of 46 American Cities” by Gabe Morrison.