Meet Gladys Villegas, Remote Sensing Data Scientist

Gladys Villegas

Name: Gladys Villegas
Title: PhD candidate / Remote Sensing Data Scientist
Education: Earth observation - Computer Engineer

Book(s): Wolf girl, How to think bigger

Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I'm Gladys Villegas, and I have a background in geospatial technology and data science. I'm originally from Ecuador but currently based in Belgium. My academic journey includes a Ph.D. in Bioscience Engineering from Ghent University, where I focus on using satellite imagery and machine learning for land monitoring.

What is your job and what does a typical workday look like for you?

My job as a Ph.D. researcher typically involves conducting research related to monitoring land using satellite images and machine learning techniques. A typical workday for me includes working with various Python libraries such as numpy, matplotlib, pandas, geopandas, scikit-learn, and tensorflow for data analysis and geospatial processing. I also use GIS tools like QGIS and Google Earth Engine for data manipulation and analysis. My work often involves leading projects, collaborating with interdisciplinary teams, and developing innovative techniques for geospatial data processing.

Poster presentation of gladys's research.

Could you tell us what land monitoring is and what applications of land monitoring your research focuses on ?

Land monitoring, within the scope of my research in Ecuador, entails systematic collection and analysis of satellite data through machine learning techniques. I concentrate on monitoring land cover changes, encompassing urbanization, deforestation, and agricultural expansion. A noteworthy component of my work involves studying deforestation in the Amazon region of Ecuador. Additionally, my research includes obtaining Land Use and Land Cover (LULC) maps specific to Ecuadorian ecoregions. This effort contributes to a comprehensive understanding of the diverse ecosystems in Ecuador, aiding in the formulation of targeted conservation strategies and informed decision-making for land management.

Land Use and Land Cover map in different ecoregion of Ecuador Gladys doing fieldwork for her research

What challenges can be expected dealing with geospatial data ?

Processing geospatial data poses several challenges, including the volume and complexity of the data. Large data sets from satellite imagery require efficient storage and processing. In addition, ensuring data accuracy and quality is crucial, especially in multi-sensor fusion projects. Another further challenge is the need for advanced image processing and machine learning techniques to extract meaningful information from the data. Finally, the integration of various geospatial tools and platforms poses challenges in terms of interoperability and workflow optimisation.

What are the steps involved in geospatial data processing ?

Geospatial data processing usually includes the following steps:

  • Data acquisition: Collection of satellite or aerial imagery.
  • Pre-processing: Correction of atmospheric effects, sensor calibration and geometric correction.
  • Image enhancement: Improvement of visual quality and highlighting of elements of interest.
  • Image analysis: Use of feature extraction, classification and pattern recognition algorithms.
  • Integration: Combining data from multiple sources or sensors.
  • Modelling: Development of predictive models using machine learning techniques.
  • Validation: Assessment of the accuracy of results by checking the veracity of validation data or datasets.

How about when you’re not working? Any hobbies or interests you’d like to tell us about?

Beyond my professional activities, I love to explore the intersection between technology and creativity. Photography has become an important hobby for me, allowing me to capture the beauty of the world through a lens. It is a fascinating parallel to my work in geospatial technology, as both involve visually interpreting and documenting our environment. In addition, I find balance and motivation through my love for running and calisthenics. Whether it's hitting the pavement for a long run or challenging myself with bodyweight exercises, staying active and pushing my physical limits is a vital part of my daily routine.

What or who got you initially interested in coding and / or pursuing a career in tech?

During my computer engineering studies, a mentor played a key role in igniting my passion for technology. His advice showed the transformative power of programming to turn theoretical ideas into practical solutions. Intrigued by the limitless possibilities, I explored geospatial technology, where coding unlocked the potential of satellite imagery and machine learning for land monitoring. This experience cemented my commitment to a career in technology and led me to pursue a PhD in remote sensing. The perfect combination of curiosity, mentorship and the impact of technology on the environment became the driving force behind my academic and professional career.

Are there any particular women in tech who have inspired you?

There are many inspiring women in tech, but one who stands out is Virginia Tower Norwood. Her legacy is rooted in groundbreaking work in remote sensing technology, which includes designing a crucial transmitter for a moon reconnaissance mission that paved the way for the historic Apollo landings. Furthermore, she led the development of the first multispectral scanner to capture Earth's imagery from space, initiating a continuous series of satellite-based scanners that have been imaging the world for nearly half a century. Her achievements serve as a powerful testament to the impact one can have when they pursue their passion, challenge norms, and push the boundaries of technology and innovation. Her unwavering commitment to pioneering technology and fostering diversity and inclusion remains an enduring source of inspiration for my own career.

If you look back on when you first started out. What advice would you give yourself?

Looking back to when I first started, I would advise myself to continue being curious and open to learning. The tech industry is constantly evolving, and staying updated with the latest developments and tools is crucial. Also, I would emphasize the importance of networking and collaboration with peers in the field, as it can lead to valuable opportunities and insights.

A PhD involves a lot of reading, trying out approaches and working with different teams on different projects. How do you keep yourself organized on all these fronts ?

Managing my PhD involves meticulous planning. I develop a comprehensive research plan with clear milestones and deadlines to ensure progress. However, collaborating with international teams poses additional challenges, particularly in terms of data availability. Delays in receiving data from external organisations can affect meeting deadlines.
To address this problem, effective communication within interdisciplinary teams is crucial. I maintain transparency about possible delays and encourage flexibility in project timelines. Collaboration tools such as GitHub and Jira help with version control and project tracking, allowing for smooth adjustments when necessary.

Gladys at the German Remote Sensing Data Center

What comes next for you after the PhD ? (interested in pursuing your career in academia or industry ?)

After completing my PhD, my goal is to apply the extensive knowledge I have gained in geospatial technology and machine learning to real-world challenges in industry. I am drawn to the dynamic intersection of these fields, where I can actively contribute to solving tangible problems. My preference lies in the transition to industry, as it provides a platform to apply the knowledge gained during my academic career to projects that have a direct impact on solving global problems. My goal is to bridge the gap between research and practical solutions, leveraging my knowledge to make a significant contribution to environmental and social advancement within the industrial landscape.

Do you have any favourite resources or projects you like to follow?

Some of my favorite resources include websites like Spatial Thoughts and podcasts like "The MapScaping Podcast", “Minds behind maps”. These platforms provide valuable insights and keep me informed about the latest trends in data science and earth observation.

What has been the most exciting tech project you’ve been a part of ? (Question from Tessa I)

The most exciting technology project I have been involved in is around banana disease detection. This project was particularly appealing because it involved working with a real-world dataset and addressing a major problem for farmers. The difficulties in accurately identifying and mitigating banana diseases had a tangible impact on farming practices. It was rewarding to apply advanced technologies, such as machine learning and image analysis, to help solve a problem with practical implications for the farming community. The project not only showed the power of technology to address real-world challenges, but also highlighted the potential for positive change in the agricultural sector.

How do you see the future of geospatial technology evolving, and what potential impact do you think it will have on our environment and society as a whole?

Advances in remote sensing, machine learning and data analytics are positioned to revolutionise the accuracy and timeliness of environmental monitoring. These developments have profound implications for disaster management, resource allocation and environmental conservation. Geospatial technology, at its cutting edge, is a fundamental tool for sustainable development. By providing invaluable information on land use, biodiversity and climate change, it empowers decision-makers at local and global scales, moving us towards a future where informed decisions generate positive outcomes for the environment and society.

What made you join the women.code(be) community?

I joined the women.code(be) community to connect with like-minded individuals, share experiences, and contribute to discussions about diversity and inclusion in the tech industry.

How could the tech industry be more inclusive for women and minorities?

To make the tech industry more inclusive for women and minorities, it's essential to actively promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace. This includes providing mentorship and support, addressing bias and discrimination, and creating opportunities for underrepresented groups to excel and lead in tech roles.

We hope you enjoyed Gladys Villegas's story, feel free to share this article with your network. ❤️

You can find Gladys on LinkedIn.

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