Downs wins American Geophysical Union visualization competition

Posted: December 7, 2020

When it comes to teaching the wonders of science, something as simple as a dynamic picture could grab the attention of the next generation of students.   

Ohio State University electrical and computer engineering (ECE) Graduate Fellow Brandi Downs was recently named among the Grand Prize winners at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) 2020 Michael H. Freilich Student Visualization Competition for her research work at the ElectroScience Laboratory.

Downs’ winning submission is based upon the mapping of annual surface water variation in the United States using GPS reflections from space.

Specifically, her project addresses the topic of wetlands and how their public perception over the decades has evolved from that of useless drainage areas, to understanding how truly diverse their ecosystem actually is and seeking preservation.

Worldwide, she said, wetlands are continually being threatened by climate change, sea level rise and habitat destruction.

In her research, Downs gathered reflectometry data to observe inland water levels in the Florida Everglades using NASA's Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS).

Learn more about Ohio State’s involvement with the CYGNSS mission.

The satellites receive reflection signals from the Earth's surface, Downs said. Characteristics of the received signal contain information about the surface in ways that are not only visually enhanced, but reveal scientific data in new ways.

“In general, a higher signal-to-noise ratio is correlated with a higher likelihood of surface water,” she said. “One of the benefits of reflectometry is its ability to see through clouds and rain, and detect water under vegetation. This makes it an ideal remote sensing method for monitoring water extent in wetlands.”

The winning images Downs submitted for the competition were from the animation of the ebb and flow of CYGNSS satellite surface water data.

“These images capture a significant flood event that occurred on the lower Mississippi River, floodplain, and surrounding wetlands from October 2018 through July 2019,” Downs said.

The first video shows daily CYGNSS tracks covering the Everglades and surrounding wetlands in South Florida and demonstrates the potential of CYGNSS to differentiate between areas of water / not water, even when the surface water is covered by vegetation.

The second video maps surface water throughout the Southeastern United States using CYGNSS measurements and shows the way that water varies over a seven-month period. It also displays CYGNSS's ability to capture a flood event that occurred on the Mississippi River and surrounding floodplains from Oct 2018 to Feb 2019.

According to the AGU, “powerful visuals can often evoke excitement and emotion, driving a deeper level of engagement with the audience and subject matter being presented.”

As a scientist, thinking about how to extend her research to a wider audience is vital.

“I think competitions like these are important for students because they push us to extend ourselves and our abilities in ways that we may not experience through our research alone,” Downs said. “This competition challenged me to investigate new ways to visualize CYGNSS data and make it more accessible to the general public. This can both help me to improve my data visualization and communication skills, and bring additional visibility to research on CYGNSS, GNSS-reflectometry, and wetlands.” 

As a Grand Prize winner in the Michael H. Freilich Student Visualization Competition, Downs earns $3,000 for travel or professional development in data visualization and storytelling, including online classes, software, networking, and hardware. Funding for the award is provided from NASA.

AGU is a nonprofit organization of Earth, atmospheric, ocean, hydrologic, space, and planetary scientists, consisting of over 62,000 members from 144 countries.

The Michael H. Freilich Student Visualization Competition Program provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate creative ways to use visualization to present complex problems in the Earth and space sciences as well as transdisciplinary sciences.

Story by Ryan Horns | Communications Specialist | | @OhioStateECE