GERC - Virginia Tech Collaboration: Ellen Gilliland

By Ellen Gilliland; Geophysics Research Associate at the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research

Hello from London
I am a geophysics research associate at the GERC-affiliated Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research (VCCER) in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA, and a part-time Ph.D. student in the Mining and Minerals Engineering Department at Virginia Tech.  I spent an eventful three weeks at the University of Nottingham in July of 2015 through an exchange program for engineering students, the International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. 

I met first with GERC director, Dr. Matt Hall, who welcomed me to UoN with a tour of the main campus and showed me one of GERC’s laboratory facilities for high-resolution imaging and rock sample analysis.  Over the course of my visit, Dr. Hall introduced me to several GERC-affiliated researchers, including members of the British Geological Survey, and we discussed opportunities for collaborations with Virginia Tech and the VCCER.  Outside of work, the GERC staff and graduate researchers entertained me with multiple outings and evenings on the town.

A raw image from a single TerraSAR-X data
acquisition over the field site in Buchanan
County, Virginia
Most of my time at UoN was spent working with Dr. Andy Sowter at the Nottingham Geospatial Institute (NGI) on Jubilee Campus.  Dr. Sowter developed the Intermittent Small Baseline Subset (ISBAS) method for processing radar imagery collected by satellite.  The VCCER is currently collecting radar imagery from the German TerraSAR-X satellite as part of the monitoring program for a carbon storage/enhanced gas recovery project in Buchanan County, Virginia, USA.  The project, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, involves injecting up to 20,000 tonnes of CO2 into a depleted coalbed methane reservoir.  One element of my PhD research includes using the satellite data to look for possible surface deformation (uplift) caused by the CO2 injection.  The unstable terrain at the test site is a challenge for traditional differential analysis (interferometry), but the ISBAS method uses a modified algorithm to generate more complete solutions in such settings. 

I was excited to have a chance to learn directly from Dr. Sowter and practice ISBAS processing using his Punnet software on existing data sets.  The technique requires a large number of images, and at the time of my visit, our own data set was not sufficient to process.  However, I plan to meet with Dr. Sowter again in fall of 2016, once our full data set has been collected, to continue the collaboration and obtain results for our test… so, stay tuned!  We think this is an interesting case study for the technology and could have implications for a number of industries whose operations affect land surfaces.

Freddie, self-appointed ambassador
 of Wales
Dr. Sowter was a great mentor, and I appreciate that he made so much time for me during my visit.  He impressed me with his research knowledge and enthusiasm, patience with my endless questions, and a remarkable ability to rebound instantly from any technical complication or setback with a “maaaan” before continuing (or starting over) unfazed.  In addition to the valuable mentorship, I enjoyed daily tea breaks with Dr. Sowter and his research group, often joined by Dr. Stuart Marsh of NGI, where we spent time troubleshooting individual projects and chatting about families, travels, and the best classic rock bands. 

Other highlights of my trip to Nottingham included exploring the city with the lively IRES cohort (I especially enjoyed the pubs and the Kitty CafĂ©), crumpets for breakfast, and a visit from my parents at the end of my study.  I took advantage of my proximity to other sights and made weekend bus trips to London and Paris (and learned that buses can ride ferries).  After my program at UoN, my parents and I took a longer trip to the Welsh countryside where we enjoyed the scenic views and friendly locals.
Many thanks to Dr. Hall and GERC, Dr. Sowter and NGI, and the IRES program for a great research experience and a fun visit to Nottingham!

*You can keep up to date with GERC activities on our social media channels*