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The world of 'what if'

Collaboration across many disciplines is key to geospatial lab's analysis, mapping, projections


Whatever you want to know about wherever, the staff at K-State's Geographic Information Systems Spatial Analysis Laboratory probably can track it down.

"The projects we do are all over the place thematically, but they all use geospatial technology," said Shawn Hutchinson, director of the lab and an associate professor of geography. "Many of our projects deal with natural resources, agriculture, public health, ecology or biology. We have a multi-disciplinary lab and we work with an array of people at K-State and from outside organizations."

Founded in 1990, GISSAL supports spatial research, education and outreach. Recent projects range from a map of the characteristics of wheat harvested in the United States to determining the factors that make a ranching population vulnerable to disease outbreaks.

Since 2000, the spatial analysis lab has collaborated with more than 35 academic departments, research units, and state and federal agencies here and abroad. The program has received two K-State Targeted Excellence Program awards. The lab also has been named a National Center for Digitizing Excellence by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Ten major projects are under way, with lab staff serving as principal or co-principal investigators. The projects total more than $4.3 million.

A current project has staffers working with K-State's International Grains Program to create a Web site where buyers from across the globe can assess wheat harvests in the United States.

"The International Grains Program staff is collecting data on the quality of wheat that's harvested and our lab is working to model and map this data," Hutchinson said. "Eventually, we hope to start a Web site where wheat buyers can see the crop information and decide where they want to buy wheat based on the characteristics of each crop."

The lab's staff also helped a student complete a master's project examining rural vulnerability to agricultural diseases. The student looked at what factors would determine where people are vulnerable to natural disasters, then gave this concept an agricultural spin, Hutchinson said.

"He asked, 'What if an area that is economically reliant on cattle farming were to be hit with a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak?'" Hutchinson said. "He looked at what the economic impact could be on the people in an area like this." Such research can help emergency managers plan for the potential effects on an agricultural state.

The staff at K-State's Geographic Information Systems Spatial Analysis Laboratory is as diverse as the projects it takes on. In addition to professional staff and visiting scientists, the lab employs 13 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students, and one exchange student.

"We've been fortunate to attract and employ a mix of male and female students, as well as people from different cultural and racial backgrounds," Hutchinson said. "I'm proud of this, and they're great students and great people."

Students employed by the lab get hands-on training with the technology used in the field and are involved in all aspects of projects, from meetings with clients to research and final presentations, Hutchinson said.

"A significant number of students are gaining invaluable experience," said Richard Marston, University Distinguished Professor and head of the geography department. "And the K-State community of geographic information systems scholars is now larger, better connected and working together because of the lab."