By Barbara Moran
Suchi Gopal bursts into her classroom, buzzing with energy. The 11 graduate students parked behind glowing computer monitors rouse themselves from reverie. It’s late in the semester and they are preoccupied with their final projects. But Gopal has more to teach. “Aha!” she claps with delight. “Today we will do some math!”
“I want to solve real-world problems. I don’t want to write something that’s buried in a journal. I want to work with actual people to make a difference,” says Gopal. “All this data is only good if it addresses a societal problem.”Over the past two decades, as computing power has increased, GIS has risen from an obscure tool for measuring Canadian farms to a powerful technique that maps everything from the eating patterns of orangutans to health care access in Zambia. And Gopal, with her expertise in statistics and geography, as well as her wide-ranging scientific interests, rides the tip of this trend. Her students in Introduction to GIS come from public health, social work, geography, neuroscience, anthropology, and myriad other fields to learn how to turn their dry data into spectacular maps. Today, Gopal is teaching them the power of computing by snatching it away. “Who wants to go to the board and work out the math? C’mon, I’ll help you!” Smiling, cajoling, Gopal encourages two students to the board, where they begin to solve a series of tedious equations, usually crunched by computer. Finally, the students find an answer: 29.374. Gopal circles it in blue chalk. “This is the temperature of just one unknown location,” she says. “You see how much work that was? On the computer, everything is so sweet and quick.” The exercise is Gopal’s work in a nutshell: years of research, thousands of data points, millions of calculations, all painstakingly collected, entered, checked, and finally hidden behind a beautiful, brightly colored map that anyone can understand intuitively. But Gopal’s talent goes far beyond the science of data crunching. She is gifted in the unteachable art of weaving: bringing together seemingly unrelated ideas and people to attack thorny problems. Her colleagues describe her as equal parts mapmaker and matchmaker.