Research & Field Work

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USC Spatial students have extensive opportunities to work directly with faculty on their funded research projects. Read about some of the awards and recognition that our students have received for their scholarship and about research and internship experiences of two GeoDesign majors.

Applications are now being accepted for undergraduate research opportunities with USC Spatial Sciences Institute faculty in the 2022-2023 academic year. Applications are due to Managing Director Susan Kamei by 5:00 pm on Friday, August 5, 2022.

Current and past research projects include:

USC Urban Trees Initiative

SSI undergraduates have conducted the research for the USC Urban Trees Initiative, providing City of Los Angeles decisionmakers with data-driven and community-informed information to guide the investment in an urban forest to improve the health and quality of life in eastside communities of Lincoln Heights, El Sereno, Ramona Gardens, Boyle Heights, University Park and City Terrace. Under the direction of SSI Founding Director and Professor John P. Wilson, the 2020-2022 research teams included Rachel Ablondi, Naman Casas, Charles Curtin, Jackson Fitzgerald, Jillian Gorman, Erik Huisman, Emma Johnson, Joan Lee and Seher Randhawa. The 2021-2022 team won the 2022 USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy first prize and the USC Sustainability Award second prize.

SunSmart and GeoDesign: A Pathway for Human and Community Health

The USC and the Keck School of Medicine “SunSmart” outreach program seeks to improve sun exposure behaviors among children and adolescents in USC-affiliated schools to reduce risk of skin cancers, particularly melanoma. In the 2016-2017 SunSmart Undergraduate Research Associates Program (URAP) project, Diana Kim (B.S. GeoDesign '17) and Nida Soe (B.S. GeoDesign '17) worked with elementary school students to collect UV data, create a geodatabase, conduct spatial interpolation of the UVI, analyze the solar radiation, and identify potential locations for and types of shade structure most desired by the students. They worked with the SSI and Keck faculty team of Dr. Myles Cockburn, Dr. Kim Miller, Marlene Caldera, Dr. Loraine Escobedo, Dr. Jennifer Swift, and Dr. Darren Ruddell. They presented their research results at the 2017 American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting in Boston, MA and at the 2017 USC Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work.

In the 2017-2018 academic year, the Phase 2 URAP project implemented SunSmart strategies to provide safer and healthier schoolyards for students and educators. Research activities included utilizing the previous URAP SunSmart data gathered, analyzed and mapped, use of Geographic Information Science (GIS) technology to support design, planning and project management activities, and faculty/student-led workshops aimed at executing schoolyard SunSmart GeoDesigns.

The student researchers:
• used the results of the previous SunSmart and URAP research projects and 2-D and 3-D spatial technologies available through Geographic Information Systems (GIS), to support the development of construction management plans for proposed GeoDesigns of shade structures in schoolyards for presentation to stakeholders;

• defined all aspects of the implementation plans, such as who the stakeholders are and what communities are involved, funding opportunities to construct and install the shade structures, construction materials required and permitted, subcontractors required for the construction and installation, all building and land use codes that must be adhered to, and the time frame required for construction to be carried out at each participating school;

• iterated the proposed designs toward implementation of the methodology of the GeoDesigns generated in workshops and presentations to stakeholders that highlighted the importance of SunSmart approaches that incorporate realistic GeoDesign options for new shade structures for each school; and

• produced a final presentation for each of the three participating schools, and for all stakeholders tofurther educate children in tangible solutions and to illustrate to the school boards and PTSA’s the concrete steps taken to solve the problem.

The research culminated in a three-day workshop at which the GeoDesign students presented their alternative plans for implementing specific design scenarios aimed at reducing sun exposure among children at the five partner schools. The students, as a team, produced the project management plans and final results of the designs implemented in the real world, including presentations at schools and for other stakeholders as needed, and prepared a final technical report on the methodology and results of this summer project. This report detailed information about the final designs chosen for each school, implementation plans including construction management schedules, costs and funding sources identified and/or obtained, and PDF’s of any final presentations.

3D Visualization and Decision-making: Applications for the USC University Park Campus

Under the direction of SSI Director and Professor John P. Wilson and SSI GIS Project Specialist Beau MacDonald, a team of SSI undergraduate and graduate student researchers developed a state-of-the-art 3D visualization of the University Park campus (UPC) for the USC Facilities Management Services (FMS) that includes buildings and landscape features. With this 3D model, FMS can generate real-time interior and exterior routes for emergency responder, disability access, strategic planning, and other essential services.

Team members created models for various landscape elements on the UPC campus, including fountains, statues, fences, gates, trees and other vegetation. For example, after drawing the footprints for fountains using a satellite base map in ArcMap, they collected data in the field, gathering more-accurate location information, taking photos, measuring heights and other attributes. The actual 3D models were made by importing shapefile or geodatabase geometry into CityEngine software and then writing procedural cga code to generate the models. Final steps included importing realistic water and façade textures and then using additional 3D software to develop intricate shapes and decorations and to create some of the statutes for the middle of the fountains.

The 2017-2018 team melded together all the components of the virtual campus environment -- buildings, fountains, trees, and other elements -- using the newest technology to make the models available online.

The team has included undergraduates Elizabeth Berson, Grace Corsi, Courtney Fassett, Robin Franke, Julia Fruithandler, Eliza Gutierrez-Dewar,  Diana Kim, Sarah Ladhani, Leo Ngo, Teddy Park, Joanna Wang, and graduate students Nandan Nayak and Yuqing Qian.

Joanna_photoThis project received industry and academic recognition for its use of the Esri CityEngine modeling, visualization, and data integration program in producing 3D renderings of UPC buildings. Among the awards is the second place prize won by GeoDesign major Ziyu Ouyang and Spatial Studies minor Shan Yu Chuan in the “Digital Media” category of the 2015 USC 17th Annual Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work for their CityEngine work in their presentation “Modeling 3D Campus and Visualizing Indoor Routing.”

Research participation was funded by the Provost’s USC Undergraduate Research Associates (URAP) Program and the USC Dornsife Student Opportunities for Academic Research (SOAR) Program.

US National Park System Light Pollution

 Ben Banet and Shan Yu Chuan - US National Park System Light Pollution projectThe US National Park Service has recognized preservation of the night skies as an important purpose of the park system. Information about the levels of light pollution as it might affect wildlife, the human experience, and astronomical observations across all park units is currently lacking, notwithstanding excellent baseline surveys of many parks.

Ben Banet (Interdisciplinary Studies '18) and Shan Yu Chuan (Spatial Sciences minor '17) worked with Dr. Travis Longcore, Assistant Professor of Architecture, Spatial Sciences, and Biological Sciences, to describe and track the levels of light visible from space emitted from and around each of the 400+ units of the National Park system using ArcGIS to analyze remote sensing data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) Day-Night Band. Ben and Shan developed and carried out a methodology for processing the VIIRS data. They are gathering the necessary data such as VIIRS datasets and the National Park shapefiles. Once the methodology is finalized, they will process the data to identify how much light pollution is in and around each park and categorize the parks by similarities in the types and distribution of light pollution.

For this research, Ben and Shan won the second place prize from the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy and honorable mention in the 2016 USC Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work. Ben’s research participation was funded by the USC Dornsife Student Opportunities for Academic Research (SOAR) Program.

In the 2017-2018 academic year, the team developed detailed reports showing trends in light pollution, documenting conditions at various known locations and identifying species likely to be sensitive to light pollution within each park.

 Spatial Patterns of Air Pollution and Land Use Policy Change in Los Angeles County

In 2016-2017, Spatial Studies minors Caroline Buth and Monica Finnstrom worked with SSI Professor Su Jin Lee to analyze the distribution of concentrations of Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 in Los Angeles County to establish what environmental parameters affect these values. Using ArcMap and new technology that included a portable sensor, AirBeam, the undergraduate researchers used the data collected and crowdsourced data to digitize land cover within 50-meter buffers around the documented readings on a base-map, and then calculated the land cover percentage. They then performed a standard least squares regression analysis to determine which parameters might be statistically significant in predicting PM 2.5 values. They concluded that the significant parameters are temperature, humidity, wind speed, visibility, elevation, tree cover, impermeable areas, and population.

In 2017-2018, this team visualized the consequences of the impact on land cover changes in Los Angeles County, built a model to classify land use by types using a GIS system; extracted property information and spatially join them with the classified parcel boundaries using a GIS system; identified approved community, neighborhood, and area plans; and analyzed data to explore a spatial pattern or relationship between the parcels and plans.


The Spatial Sciences Institute will offer SSCI 350: International GeoDesign as a Maymester course in the summer of 2022.

Students will work on an urban renewal project in Salzburg, Austria, considered one of the most livable cities in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the two-week field experience in Salzburg from May 28 through June 11, 2022, students will collaborate with the interdisciplinary faculty of the  Z_GIS (Geoinformatics Department) of the University of Salzburg.

Applications are being accepted now and are due to Professor Laura Loyola ( on February 1, 2022. Space is limited.

Spatial Sciences Institute faculty with funding from the Provost’s USC Undergraduate Research Associates (URAP) Program recruit for undergraduate student researchers in the summer before each academic year.

The SOAR program provides funding to Dornsife majors for participation as a research assistant in a faculty member’s project. The purpose of SOAR is to connect students with faculty members and their research; it allows all students to be mentored one-on-one by USC faculty, and introduces students early in their academic careers to the process of serious scholarly inquiry. Please note that this program does not fund independent research projects, including those related to 490 courses or honors theses.

SOAR is for research during the fall and spring semesters of the academic year. Funding applications are accepted for the first five weeks of fall and the first four weeks of spring semester. Please check the USC Dornsife Student Opportunities for Academic Research (SOAR) Program website for application deadlines.

The Dornsife SURF Program provides funding to USC Dornsife majors to pursue undergraduate research, in collaboration with Dornsife faculty, either on or off campus during the summer semester. Students are encouraged to conduct on-site research either at USC or under the direction of USC Dornsife faculty at many institutions across the nation and around the globe. Any student in good standing, with at least one USC Dornsife major, may apply for a research stipend of up to $3,000 to support a summer research project of their choosing. This stipend may be used to pay for travel, equipment, living expenses, fees, or other costs related to the research effort.

Call the Dornsife Dean’s Office at (213) 740-2531 for more information about eligibility, deadlines, and the application process.