Remote Sensing Research Brings Genny Plant (ECE ’11) to Alaska

in Faculty, News-EP, Research, Research-EP, Students, Undergraduate Programs, Undergraduate Student Opportunities, Undergraduate Students
March 28th, 2011

Genny Plant (ECE '11) speaks with Dr. Bob Marshall on the phone while in Alaska. For the first night of observation, Dr. Hanna Dahlgren and Plant stayed with their installation in Ester, Alaska, while Marshall operated the other system at Poker Flat Research Range. They communicated via cell phone to coordinate the pointing of the two systems so that their images would provide a significant overlap.

Genny Plant (ECE '11) speaks with Dr. Bob Marshall on the phone while in Alaska. For the first night of observation, Dr. Hanna Dahlgren and Plant stayed with their installation in Ester, Alaska, while Marshall operated the other system at Poker Flat Research Range. Photo courtesy of Dr. Hanna Dahlgren.

After a winter that broke snowfall records in many places across the state, many Boston University students booked flights to warmer climates and sunny beaches earlier this month for spring break. But not Genny Plant (ECE ’11) – she decided to travel to Alaska and left while class was still in session.

Alaska wouldn’t have been Plant’s first choice for a winter getaway, and she also wasn’t purposely trying to skip class, but the March trip was an important part of research she’s been conducting with Professor Joshua Semeter (ECE).

Semeter studies the aurora borealis, a manifestation of electrons about 100 kilometers in the sky that create a bright light display. The aurora is only visible at high latitudes on clear, cold nights and sightings are typically unpredictable.

Highly charged, the aurora can interfere with satellite communication, cause power outages and even rust pipes. Work by Semeter and Plant may help better predict aurora in the future and prevent some of the problems they cause.

Plant started working with Semeter on a volunteer basis the summer following her junior year.

“I knew from EK307 that Genny was an outstanding academic performer,” said Semeter. “I was also drawn to the fact that she had an interest in visual arts, which aligned well with my interests in optical remote sensing.”

Then, she applied – and received – one of the first Lutchen Fellowships that give $10,000 to ten undergraduates in the College of Engineering to support summer research. She was then able to work full-time in Semeter’s lab.

Photograph of the night sky at the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska. The aurora pictured in this photo was observed using Plant's tomographic imaging system. Photo courtesy of James Spann.

Photograph of the night sky at the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska. The aurora pictured in this photo was observed using Plant's tomographic imaging system. Photo courtesy of James Spann.

“Professor Semeter encouraged me to apply,” said Plant. “I saw the fellowship as an opportunity to increase my involvement and get a real sense of scientific and engineering research.”

She used part of the fellowship to travel to Alaska and purchase two computers for a high-speed tomographic imaging system – computers that are now being used to track aurora at the Poker Flat Research Range and Ester Dome Observatory in Fairbanks.

With help from BU postdoctoral fellows, Dr. Bob Marshall and Dr. Hanna Dahlgren, Plant developed the imaging system by setting camera parameters, controlling data acquisition, and synchronizing the readout of images to a pulse-per-second clock from an external GPS receiver.

“This was my first involvement in a research campaign, so I was able to experience the process of setting up experiments in the field and take part in a collaboration within the scientific community; in this case Boston University and The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks,” said Plant.

During her trip, Plant was able to install the two imaging systems and set them up so that they are able to work remotely.

Genny Plant in Alaska

Genny Plant (ECE '11) (center) helps install a portable observation dome in Alaska that is used to enclose a steerable mount to point the camera and a heater to keep the inside temperature above freezing. Photo courtesy of Dr. Hanna Dahlgren.

“Due to low magnetic activity and overcast skies, I was unfortunately unable to view any aurora myself, but after I left, the systems were able to record a large auroral event,” said Plant.

Semeter was very pleased with Plant’s work and said that he was “amazed” by her rapid progress last summer – especially since at first, he wasn’t sure how much of a role an undergraduate could play in the project.

“It has been a joy to watch Genny develop personally and professionally during her time with my group,” he said. “She is quiet, funny, extremely hard working, and an outstanding engineer.”

Though Plant is now very passionate about engineering, it may be hard to believe that she started out undecided about her academic path.

“It was not until I took the required physics classes that I realized my interests lay in the field of electromagnetics, and more specifically, light,” she said.

Now Plant plans to continue her education after she graduates this spring. Eventually, she hopes to earn her Ph.D. in electrical engineering.

Said Plant: “I feel that the fundamentals of electrical and computer engineering are present in most forms of modern technology – from robotics to space exploration – making an ECE degree useful in almost any field.”

Read more about Semeter’s research in the Fall 2009 issue of Engineer Magazine.

-Rachel Harrington (rachelah@bu.edu)