School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Remote connections - Meet Rachel Kuzmich

PhD Candidate in Geography and Planning

by Phil Gaudreau

Ekaterina Antsygina

Throughout some parts of eastern Ontario, the Cerulean warbler makes its home. The small blue songbird, a threatened species in Ontario, is most commonly found in large, forested areas such as the Ottawa Valley.

As it flits from tree to tree in search of insects, the warbler is being closely observed and studied. Unseen and undetected, scientists like Rachel Kuzmich are watching its every move to try and understand why the species, which is declining in most of its range, is doing well around the Queen’s University Biological Station just outside of Kingston.

“We know from existing publications that often birds select areas based on structure, and it would be impossible to survey the entire forest,” she says. “We take advantage of light detection and ranging – or LiDAR – data which gives us a 3D point cloud so we can see the distribution for example of foliage in the vertical and horizontal kind of way.”

Rachel is a first-year PhD student in the Department of Geography and Planning, and it was Queen’s top-notch technology and interdisciplinary learning opportunities that first attracted her to Kingston. As part of her research, she uses cutting-edge LIDAR technology to study her tiny blue winged subjects alongside her supervisor, Dr. Paul Treitz. When it is time to analyze the data, she collaborates with experts in the Queen’s Biology department – including Dr. Paul Martin – to examine the data from multiple perspectives.

While Rachel’s research focuses on conservation efforts, it is just one way of demonstrating the value of LIDAR technologies. “The province is interested in collecting wall-to-wall LIDAR data for the entire province which will help with planning for roads and infrastructure, and there is a satellite called GEDI – Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation – launched in 2018 collecting laser data to facilitate carbon accounting,” she says.

Being at Queen’s has opened up a number of other doors for Rachel to further her development as an academic. She is currently serving as a teaching assistant in a Human Geography course, and preparing for a trip to the United Kingdom’s Monks Wood National Nature Reserve this spring for a fieldwork opportunity. “It's amazing to be in a program that lets me collect my own data in the field and that is able to send me to the UK to do it.”

Rachel isn’t just interested in her own learning, however. She is currently establishing a not-for-profit called Conference2Classroom, which aims to connect people attending conferences with grade and high school classrooms so they can both share their knowledge and passion and raise awareness of different career opportunities.

“I grew up in Welland, Ontario, which was very blue-collar. I had no idea the remote sensing work I do today existed, though I am very happy to be doing this work now,” she says. “Through Conference2Classroom I have facilitated a few events so far, including a pair of Queen’s graduate students who attended the ArcticNet conference in Ottawa and shared their knowledge within a local school. I want to send these types of speakers to places like Tyendinaga or Odessa or Napanee or other rural and remote places within the Limestone District School Board where they may not typically get access to these same people.”

Sharing knowledge is a significant passion of Rachel’s. She is one of the leaders in the GoGeomatics group in Kingston, an organization which hosts free networking events for those working and studying in the geographic information system, remote sensing, drone, surveying, and geomatics fields in Canada, and she previously led the GoGeomatics group in Peterborough. Rachel is also a member of 500 Women Scientists, a chapter-based organization dedicated to making science open, inclusive, and accessible.

“The organization basically advocates for women doing science and encouraging younger girls who might be interested in science but don't have the tools or have never considered the idea,” she says. “If you google ‘scientist’ and look at images you see what you would expect to see. Growing up, I was one of those girls who never considered that you can be a woman scientist. I think this organization offers a great opportunity for mentorship.”

In the spirit of learning, Rachel is sharing her approach to applying for graduate school that helped her land her number one choice.

“I started looking at schools that had programs that would fit, and what their researchers and labs were doing. I read the most recent publications if it was looking like something that might be a fit for me. I then started reaching out via email, but I made sure not to start with my favourite program – knowing that the first draft of my pitch was likely to be a bit rambly because I was nervous. I started with my second and third choice to hone my pitch.”

Rachel will be giving a talk at the National Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa on March 9.