CGRER Looks Forward: Statistician Kate Cowles


Julia Poska | March 22, 2019

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Kate Cowles, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska. 

Hydrologists can never completely predict when flooding will strike. Conservationists can never be sure how chemical spills will impact fish populations, nor can anyone really foretell how extreme the effects of climate change will be. That’s why environmental researchers need statisticians like Kate Cowles.

“One of the hallmarks of statistical work is assessing realistically how much uncertainty remains,” said the University of Iowa professor of statistics and biostatistics.

Cowles’ was first introduced to environmental statistics when another environmental statistician, her early mentor Dale Zimmerman, called on her expertise in Bayesian statistics. Together they calibrated four methods of measuring water held in snow across the western U.S..

“Indeed I learned an enormous amount from Dale and really got hooked on the environmental and spatial,” she said. and “I’ve pretty much been working in that area ever since.”

Cowles began her career as a piano teacher…how did she get here today? Listen to her describe her fascinating journey.  

Notably, Cowles was director of GEEMaP (Geoinformatics for Environmental and Energy Modeling and Prediction), a value-added graduate program funded by the National Science Foundation. Before it ended last summer, GEEMaP brought together faculty and graduate  students in fields like statistics, civil and environmental engineering, mechanical and industrial engineering, computer science,  geoinformatics and geography.

The problems they discussed and solved exposed students to real-world problems and gave them a strong grounding in statistics and geographic information systems (GIS), Cowles said. Every project promoted interdisciplinary collaboration.

Cowles said a class she teaches on Bayesian statistics, her specialty, also resonates well with engineering students. The Bayesian approach allows users to quantify what they do and do not know and update their understanding as more information comes in. Cowles believes it parallels the way engineers think and lends itself well to engineering problems. She is always excited to advise engineering students and further promote collaboration with statisticians.

“I think that it is crucially important for those two types of data analysts to work together and communicate with each other,” Cowles said.

Because environmental datasets are often measured over both space and time, researchers in fields like agriculture and meteorology must account for spatial correlation. As the first law of geography states, “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.”

Hear about a possible application for Cowles and her student’s spatial correlation software.

Calculating that relationship requires complex statistics, but failing to account it properly can lead to faulty conclusions.

“Statistical methods that help us draw the right conclusions for complex data like that are becoming more and more important,” Cowles said.

One of Cowles’ graduate students is developing software that “mops up that spatial correlation,” making things easier for non-statisticians making predictions based on spatial data.

Processing  such enormous datasets is slow work, however. In many cases, engineering methods like machine learning are faster than statistical methods, which Cowles said creates  tension between disciplines.

Listen to Cowles explain how she hopes to speed up complex spatial processing.

Another large part of her work focuses on activating underutilized graphical processing units inside computers to do many simple computations simultaneously, which can speed up the processing of such data.

“Statisticians need to catch up, because engineers and environmental scientists cannot wait for a long time for results of their analyses!” she said.

 


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

 

Iowa Flood Center resources for a soaking wet state


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This image taken from the Iowa Flood Information System shows the accumulation of rainfall in Iowa during the week leading up to this post.

Julia Poska| September 7, 2018

Citizens of Iowa know that with heavy rainfall comes flooding. The last few weeks of rain have served as a very real reminder around the state.

The Iowa Flood Center is a great source of information on current, forecasted and potential floods. Their Iowa Flood Information System in particular offers tools for researchers, city planners,  and even for concerned or curious private citizens.

At first glance, the IFIS may seem overwhelming. Fortunately for the everyday user, the IFIS homepage includes a tutorial video and links to some of the most universally useful features of the system.  These basic tools can be layered with additional information like rainfall, national parks and zip code boundaries, if users so choose.

The Inundation Maps feature shows current conditions at IFS water sensors . Zoom in on a selected area of the state and click on a blue “USGS” box along the water to view the water level at that sensor. Click “More Info” to view the level over time.  You can play with the slider in the panel to the right to see how higher or lower water levels would affect your community.

The Flood Alerts feature shows flood alerts at different stages, from “action” to “major” across the state. Clicking on the triangular alert symbols pulls up the same information about water level that the Inundation Maps feature does.

The River Communities feature dots the state with purple squares representing communities near rivers. Clicking on each will pull up information about future flood outlook and put a border around the upstream watershed so users can see what may be headed their way.

Use these tools during current and future flood hazards to stay informed, keep safe, or simply marvel at the power of nature and technology.