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Research Experience Placements: Samanta Norbury-Webster

Samanta worked with a interdisciplinary team of Professor Ruth King and Dr Stuart King from the School of Mathematics and Dr Murray Collins from the School of Geoscience. Samanta’s project combined conservation and earth observation seeking to detect elephants from satellite imagery.

What are you studying?

I am a mature student at the Open University studying BSc (Hons) Combined STEM with a focus on Biology and Environmental Science, prior to this I studied BSc Geography at the University of Exeter.

Tell us a bit about the project you have been working on this summer?

Since July I have been ‘Investigating the potential of Earth Observation for Conservation’, using satellite imagery to train a machine learning model to identify elephants in situ. Previously a lot of work has been done using remote imagery to detect and estimate species populations in homogeneous landscapes such as the polar regions or open ocean but limited work has been done on applying machine learning techniques to species within heterogeneous landscapes such as shrub and tree savannah.

What new skills have you learned while doing this internship?

Before joining SENSE I spent 6 months manually classifying sea ice and identifying Weddell seals for a training dataset, this internship gave me the opportunity to peek inside the black box. Working with some amazing computer scientists I have drastically improved my coding skills and understanding of machine learning techniques as well as improving my understanding of bush elephant (loxodonta africana) ecology. I also learnt early on that in order to train an artificial neuro-network how to identify elephants, I first had to train my biological neuro-net.

How have you found working with your research team?

Thankfully the Research team were helpful every step of the way, I got the opportunity to work with a multi-national team and negotiate data sharing between unaffiliated interest groups. Due to the potential sensitivity of the subject data security was a top priority!

What has been the highlight of the internship for you?

The highlight of the internship was definitely encountering elephants for the first time, a small family surrounding a watering hole. The location is verified by ground truth data.

How has doing this internship changed your plans or thoughts about your future career?

The internship has definitely helped shape my thoughts surrounding future careers. The areas I already conduct fieldwork in are remote: it is difficult and resource intensive to carry out ground-based research there. Earth Observation and Machine Learning provides an opportunity to enhance our understand of these areas and the species that live there. I am interested in continuing to carry out data driven research and have already passed the technical knowledge assessment for an opportunity to develop my coding skills further. I hope to use the valuable skills I have gained during my internship to formulate a research question suitable for a studentship application.

Samanta is a filmmaker and polar ambassador, you can read more from her @SamantaWildlife