Imaging science student unearths a fulfilling career

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A. Sue Weisler

Kelly Canham expects to earn her doctorate in imaging science this spring. The dual citizen of Australia and the United States attributes her “unintentional” koala bear collection, illustrated here by her pendant, to the persistent efforts of her friends and family.

Kelly Canham’s career fell into place when she started to look down.

Optics and remote sensing diverted Canham, then an astrophysics major at University of Arizona, from a career probing the sky to analyzing details captured by complex cameras pointed at Earth.

Canham’s advisor at University of Arizona, Kurt Thome, gave her a tip: “He said, ‘If you go back for graduate school, go find Dr. Schott and get into his group,’ ” says the doctoral student in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science from Maywood, Mo.

“Kurt is a long-time friend and protégé,” says John Schott, the Frederick and Anna B. Wiedman Professor in Imaging Science and acting director of the Carlson Center for Imaging Science. “University of Arizona and RIT look at each other as among the top schools in the country for remote sensing and as a source of friendly competition and often collaboration. So, if Kelly wasn’t going to stay in Arizona and do her work, then the only logical place in someone’s mind like that would be RIT.”

Canham headed to industry to gain experience as an optical engineer before looking for Schott. When she found him, she also found David Messinger, director of the Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing Group in the Center for Imaging Science in the College of Science. And through Messinger—who would become her thesis advisor—Canham found Bill Middleton, associate professor of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts.

These connections led Canham to Oaxaca, Mexico, Dec. 1–14 with Middleton to prepare for his dig in June. He will use her research to identify the most promising sites upon which to focus his quest to piece together a picture of the Zapotec civilization, an ancient people who formed the first state-level and urban society in Mexico.

Canham will measure the amount of light reflected from soils and vegetation common to the area with a spectralradiometer, the use of which she won from the Alexander Goetz Instrument Program. She will build a library of spectral signatures or “fingerprints” for Middleton that distinguish between different vegetation and minerals in the soil in Oaxaca.

She will compare the spectra to images processed in an earlier stage of the project using data collected by NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite and its Hyperion hyperspectral sensor. Hyperspectral imaging combines bands of spectral information from the electromagnetic wavelength into three-dimensional data cubes.

“Kelly’s work brings in the multi-disciplinary aspects of large-area archeological research,” Messinger says. “In order to fully understand the terrain of the Zapotec people, we need to characterize a very large and diverse landscape. To do this, we need to observe the environment from afar, in this case from space, and we need to use more than just traditional ‘color’ imagery.

“Kelly’s use of the NASA Hyperion sensor to aid in this archeological study shows how remote sensing of the Earth’s environment can be used to enable understanding across a number of disciplines, such as forestry, oceanography, environmental science, and in this case, archeology.”

Canham’s efforts represent a trend in analyzing archeological landscapes using remotely sensed information.

“The overall result of this research is to predict archeologically interesting locations,” she says. “This will help Dr. Middleton and other archaeologists focus their time and efforts in their research. They will not need to rely only on time- and resource-consuming ground surveys to determine a site. Instead, they may simply look at a map created from this research to determine where they would like to focus a more extensive dig-site.”

Middleton believes Canham “embodies the best qualities of an RIT student—highly proficient in her field, but also very interested, even eager, to work outside her traditional area.

And, as Canham has discovered in her life, one connection leads to another.

“For about a year now, she has been taking Spanish lessons with my wife, Elia, to prepare for the project,” Middleton says, “and I know that she is very excited to get started in the field.”