Hello from Switzerland! Scholl opens up about ‘enlightening, fun’ Fulbright experience

Jun 30, 2017

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Thumbnail for Hello from Switzerland! Scholl opens up about ‘enlightening, fun’ Fulbright experience

By Aaron Garland 

Photo of Victoria Scholl by Benjamin Kellenberger

A College of Imaging Arts and Sciences at RIT alumna is currently immersed in a partnership with Swiss researchers and scientists to improve the way trees are measured in large, forest areas. 

Victoria Scholl graduated from RIT in 2016 with a bachelor of science degree with two majors — motion picture science (in CIAS’ School of Film and Animation) and imaging science (in the College of Science). She’s spent most of her time since then overseas, after being selected as a recipient of a Fulbright U.S. Student Program research grant to work in Switzerland.

Since last September, Scholl has collaborated with researchers from the University of Zürich’s Department of Geography and scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research. They’ve teamed up to enhance forest inventory and mapping processes at the single tree level through the use of active imaging technology. Scholl has focused on developing computational methods of identifying trees within forest scans.

“From these individual trees, we can calculate the metrics that are important for forest management,” said Scholl, who grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley region.

Her 12-month research goal has been to make forest-surveying techniques less arduous and time-consuming — which means evolving the traditional manual assessments of the locations, heights, sizes, etc. of individual trees. To advance that process, Scholl has used remote sensing data and worked with airborne laser scanning (ALS), a quick, highly efficient method of capturing 3D data.

ALS, Scholl said, is collected by mounting a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) instrument on an airplane that flies over a forest. As it does, it sends out pulses of near infrared laser light that reflects off of objects, according to Scholl. The reflected energy can then be recorded and used to generate 3D maps.

“Different forest types (deciduous versus coniferous), stages of development and variations in topography throughout Switzerland make this a difficult and interesting topic of research,” Scholl said. “Improving the accuracy and efficiency of individual tree detection will potentially aid biodiversity, climate change, sustainability and natural hazard initiatives.”

Scholl’s work as a Fulbright fellow will continue through August.

During her first 10 months in Switzerland, aside from conducting sophisticated research, hiking and rock climbing has occupied a healthy portion of Scholl’s time. It’s allowed her to enjoy the mountainous, environmental bliss that is Switzerland while embracing a standard practice in the area.

Get the inside scoop on Scholl’s interesting work in and anecdotes from Europe, plus how her two majors at RIT relate to one another, in this below Q-and-A.

Question: So far, overall, how rewarding has this experience in Switzerland been?

Victoria Scholl: My Fulbright fellowship has been extremely rewarding. Professionally, I have learned a lot from the university and the federal institute with whom I collaborate. New data, technical methodology, terminology and colleagues have expanded my perspectives and abilities.

Culturally, it has been really interesting to live in a foreign country. I have been able to interact with people from all over the world and learn about how different and similar we are. Also, the official language in Zürich, Switzerland, is German. Learning and utilizing a foreign language is a cool experience.

On a personal level, I have made friends who enjoy hiking and rock climbing with me, and have accompanied me on many adventures into the Swiss Alps. The landscapes here, filled with mountains and lakes, are some of the most beautiful that I have ever seen. I have had a very busy, enlightening and fun year abroad in Switzerland. Below photo by Alessandro Cicoira: Scholl during a rock-climbing outing.

It has been an amazing opportunity to live and work in Europe for a year. I have been able to travel all over Switzerland, and even take some small trips into some of its neighboring countries, including Germany, France and Italy. 

Question: Is there something you’ve done in Switzerland that you’re particularly proud of?

Answer: Related to my research, I am really proud to have developed a method to differentiate between deciduous and coniferous forests based on the airborne laser scanning data. I used some new computational methods that I never tried before, and it is exciting that this method can be used for future forest monitoring here.

Unrelated to my research, my friends and I were once stranded at a bus stop after a hike, and I successfully ordered a taxi and arranged after-hour key pickup at a hostel, all in German! I was proud that my language skills (albeit, still at a beginner level) were effective in this situation.

Question: What might an average day for you look like?

Answer: An average weekday for me involves heading to the (University of Zürich), either by tram or bike (when the weather is nice and there is no precipitation). I spend the morning working on the computer, often taking a coffee break with colleagues in the Geography Department. If it is somebody’s birthday, we gather in the coffee break room and share cake or croissants to celebrate.

For the rest of the morning, I am usually writing code to process data, running some tests, making modifications, assessing results, etc. At midday, I head to the mensa (that’s cafeteria, in German) to have lunch with colleagues. People really value eating and spending time together during the day! Eating lunch alone or at one’s desk is actually quite rare.

After lunch, back to the office for more coding, reading scientific papers, meeting with other researchers and students within the LiDAR Lab and Remote Sensing Laboratories to discuss ideas. There are usually speakers invited to present in the afternoons about geography-related topics at least once per week.

By the evening, I head to one of the many sports facilities in the city or to a climbing wall to get some exercise.

That’s a pretty normal day for me. Busy, but the atmosphere is generally more relaxed than stressful!

On the weekends, I try to always travel somewhere new. I usually do some form of hiking at least twice per month. Below photo by Emily Scholl: Victoria Scholl explores Swiss National Park.

Question: Expanding on that note about your weekends, how have you utilized your leisure time?

Answer: I love hiking and rock climbing. These are two very common activities in Switzerland! The Alps are easily accessible by public transportation, and I have been able to appreciate many of the mountainous regions within the country with my friends and colleagues here.

One highlight was a snowshoe hike up to Spitzmeilen (a rocky peak at a height of over 8,000 feet). We started the hike early in the morning and got to witness the sunrise in a remote snow-covered landscape. I will never forget this. Below photo by Scholl: The Spitzmeilen peak. 

Another would be a via ferrata in Valais, one of the French cantons (states) of Switzerland. Via ferrata is an outdoor sport that combines some of the best aspects of both hiking and climbing. A sturdy metal cable runs along the length of the route and is fixed to the rock every few meters. Like climbing, people wear harnesses and have a set of cords/ropes with clips to attach themselves to the metal cable. This was an exhilarating experience, and definitely one of the highlights in my leisure time. 

Question: Living on a different continent for close to a year, have you been able to gain an appreciation for the area and a great deal of perspective?

Answer: Absolutely. Switzerland is quite culturally diverse — situated between Germany, France and Italy, it is heavily influenced by these three primary neighbors. Switzerland has four national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch. Although English is not an official language, it is widely spoken here as well. I am living in Zürich, which is in the northern, German-speaking region.

I have found punctuality, politeness, honesty and cleanliness to be highly valued here. People certainly interact with one another differently compared to in the U.S., and it has been interesting to hear others’ perspectives related to politics, family life and recreation. It has definitely made me more aware of how Europeans and other people around the world perceive Americans, and I have had some really thought-provoking conversations here.

Question: Is what you’re doing in Switzerland something, say a couple years ago, you envisioned you could do with your degree?

Answer: Remote sensing for environmental applications is a big part of the research opportunities within imaging science, so I could definitely imagine myself heading in this direction someday. However, upon graduation, I had initially planned to work in the industry as an imaging science engineer to quantify the performance of cameras (incorporating more of my motion picture science knowledge and experience), which is a different direction altogether. It’s exciting to know that both the MPS and imaging science programs enable graduates to enter a wide variety of fields.

Although my professional decisions and developing career path are headed in a direction that is more typical for imaging science graduates, I believe that my unique MPS background has helped me to stand out compared to other applicants along the way.

Below photo by Reik Leiterer: Scholl snowshoes the Spitzmeilen mountain.

Question: How much did your experiences while at RIT prepare you for this Fulbright experience, and what pushed you to pursue it?

Answer: I was inspired to pursue a Fulbright Research Award during my internship at the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) in Boulder, Colo. My research advisor connected me with colleagues in Switzerland who were doing work related to mine (modeling forest canopies using a laser imaging system on an airplane). He and my other mentors at NEON encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright research opportunity. This involved reaching out to institutions in Switzerland and creating a project concept that is interesting, relevant and achievable in a 12-month timeframe.

As a student at RIT, my application process was facilitated immensely through a Fulbright program advisor within the RIT Global International Fellowships office.

Question: What is your plan for when you return home from Switzerland?

Answer: In September, I will begin my masters in Geography at the University of Colorado Boulder. I am excited to apply my imaging knowledge to big data and environmental applications.