Okanagan College Grad Dives Deep into Data to Map Shark Population Growth

When Sarah Gravel decided to sign up for geographic information systems (GIS) training, she was looking to broaden her skills in a way that would serve her Master of Marine Biology degree in a productive way.

Now she is using those GIS mapping skills to understand the effects of climate change on sharks, rays, and other fishes, along with developing models for population growth rates among those creatures.

Okanagan College’s Advanced GIS Certificate program teaches students to structure, manage and analyze data within a map. The maps we’re most familiar with highlight the cartography of an area – things like oceans, roads, or mountains. GIS maps take that information one step deeper with a data component. For example, using GIS, we can explore a map of the ocean further by being able to access information on water temperature, depth, or oxygen profiles.

“As part of a marine biodiversity and conservation lab focusing on shark ecology and physiology,” says Gravel, “we work with species distribution maps and global analysis of data on sharks and factors relating to their trade, ecology, and conservation.”

“My GIS learnings have allowed me to work on developing models of maximum population growth rates based on trait data relating to the animal’s metabolic physiology: the environmental temperature and oxygen profiles, species maximum body size, and the depth at which they live in the ocean.”

The models that Gravel can now create help visualize these patterns of population growth, potentially predicting the maximum rate at which a breeding population can replace itself with new offspring.

“This helps us understand the spatial patterning of maximum population growth rates in relation to the environment and to physiological performance,” says Gravel.

Gravel was drawn to the Advanced GIS program at Okanagan College after speaking with instructor Shelley Desautels. “I realized that this program offers similar learning to what other colleges offered in half the amount of time,” says Gravel.

The online program also offers flexibility and allowed Gravel, currently residing in Vancouver, to complete this training alongside her master’s studies at Simon Fraser University. “I’ve been very busy, but the compressed format over a relatively short period of time made it manageable for me,” she says.

“Our program allows students to be job-ready in five months,” says Desautels. “When I’m teaching, my focus is on ensuring students are ready for industry employment. They have the skills to be hired into roles in a wide variety of fields, including forestry, government or mining.”

“GIS is unique because it is a specialization that opens up possibilities within many different industries,” says Desautels. “For example, a student may use their GIS skills as a way of expanding their skills in a field they are passionate about, while others may use it as a way of exploring and working within multiple industries.”

Gravel is still deciding where her interests will take her. “I plan to apply for GIS analyst jobs in marine science and conservation after my master’s program is complete. Eventually, I would like to work as a conservation biologist for NGOs, or as a marine scientist for bigger organizations, such as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, modeling the effects of climate change and habitat degradation on marine life. I am also interested in working in coastal conservation and planning. And it is a dream of mine to land a job that allows me to scuba dive, as I am an avid diver,” says Gravel.

Gravel will graduate with an Advanced GIS certificate in a virtual convocation ceremony on Tuesday, June 22. She will be joined by over 600 other students in the Continuing Studies department. The ceremony begins at 6 p.m. and will confer credentials on students in the Business, Technology, Education, Health certificate programs.

To view the ceremony and learn more, visit Viewers can also visit the webpage in advance to leave messages of congratulations via a digital guest book, pre-order flowers for a graduate with a special discount code or purchase a commemorative gift.

Original article from Okanagan College