MGIS Capstone Project Ideas from Faculty

Choosing a Capstone Advisor

The MGIS Capstone represents the culminating project for the MGIS degree program. The intention of this Capstone experience is to develop new knowledge on either the application or science of geospatial technology and analysis. A key aspect of the Capstone experience is close coordination with a Graduate Faculty advisor. The following sections highlight some of the advisors who have worked with our students in the past, and provides some ideas that they would be interested to work on in future Capstone projects. This list is not exhaustive - our students have worked with over 70 Penn State faculty across all Colleges/Campuses on Capstone projects, and MGIS students are expected to look for good potential advisors using academic department websites and other resources to help identify a good potential match. We try to update this list of faculty and ideas often, but the best source for this kind of information is on the personal websites of faculty members at Penn State. Anyone who has a Graduate Faculty appointment at Penn State can advise an MGIS project, and there is no requirement to partner with a Geography faculty member.

If you have questions about how the MGIS Capstone works or on how to look for an advisor, please email MGIS Advising Coordinator Dr. Justine Blanford.

Dr. Clio Andris (clio@psu.edu)

1. How does the world connect through systems of contacts (friends, family and co-workers)?
We are developing a new measure of Social Distance that quantifies the magnitude of social flows and social networks between places. Social flows include the flow of people (migrants, commuters, travelers, remittances), information (e-mails, telephone calls, chats, online networks), and thoughts (through mass media, memories and social ties).

2. What has a profound effect on social flows and social networks?
We study what drives or hinders social flows: such as political, natural and infrastructural boundaries, as well as institutions (universities, military bases, governments), cultural groups (defined by language, religion, social networks, or immigration status).

3. What can we learn about a place by its connectivity profiles?
We can study places not (solely) by traditional demographic features, such as race and income, but also by the extent to which the place is connected to other places through social contact and human movement (migration, commuting, etc). These variables define the culture, diversity and idea flow of a city in a way that traditional census data cannot. We can also automate this process with digital technologies.

4. How are interpersonal relationships affected by geography?
Do we socialize differently depending on what or who else is accessible? How are relationships maintained over changing geographic circumstances? How does the landscape change depending on the types and salience of local and distant relationships? What are some ways that we can teach urban planners how to build for relationships.


Dr. Justine Blanford (justineblanford@psu.edu)

Keywords: spatial and temporal analysis, ecology of disease, mobility, novel data sources.

Much of my work concerns issues related to human health either indirectly through examining threats to food supply (via crop pests and crop diseases) or more directly via disease, human movement and health care accessibility.

Student projects may be related to looking at accessibility to health and food; search and rescue; mobility and the analysis of movement; using novel data sources.


Dr. Sue Brantley  (sxb7@psu.edu) and Dave Yoxtheimer (day122@psu.edu)

Marcellus Shale-Related MGIS Capstone Idea
A student project could involve the creation of a GIS map of the distribution of shale gas wells in PA, including both the position of the vertical wells and the lateral subsurface wells. Analysis of the map could include inspection and superposition of subsurface geology information, water quality information, or socioeconomic information as developed by the student.


Dr. Guido Cervone (guc18@psu.edu)

1.The fusion of remote sensing, numerical model and social media data during emergencies. Remote sensing is the de-facto standard in observing the Earth and its environment during emergencies, but gaps in the data are inevitable due to sensor limitations of atmospheric opacity. The goal is to ‘fill the gaps’ in remote sensing observations using social media data, other non-authoritative sources, and numerical models. 

2. Using GeoInformatics to optimize numerical model forecasts for renewable energy.  Given a single deterministic future forecast, and a history of past forecasts and associated observations, the goal is to build a probabilistic forecast that captures the risk of over- or under-producing electricity.

3. The source  characterization of unknown and potentially toxic pollutants using remote sensing, numerical models and ground sensor measurements. I reconstructed the non-steady release rate for the radioactive leak at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The methodology I developed uses an evolutionary (genetic) algorithm guided by machine learning rule induction.


Dr. George Chaplin (guc5@psu.edu)

Keywords: Fossil Mapping, Pelage of the Primates, Population Density Estimation, Multiple Sclerosis Epidemiology, Geographic Modeling, Race and Skin Color

Fossil Mapping, using GIS GPS and Remote Sensing to locate and analyze the geospatial properties of fossil localities

Pelage of the Primates, investigating the climatic association of the skin and hair characteristics of the Order Primates in spatial explicit models

Population Density Estimation, Using GIS to estimate the population of of various things in the landscape currently working on the Native American Population in precolumbian times

Multiple Sclerosis Epidemiology, Using GIS to investigate the strange pattern of latitudinal clines in auto-immune diseases

Geographic Modeling, I am interested in applying models in Geospatial problems did lots of work looking at skin and UV including epidemiology

Race and Skin Color, non-GIS work looking at problems associated with Racial Classification in general


Dr. Chris Fowler (csfowler@psu.edu)

  1. My research interests center on questions of urban and economic geography. More specifically, my work is linked to policy questions related to economic development in cities. I also have a growing interest in spatial processes linked to demographic questions, mostly at the neighborhood scale.
  2. Current research looks at outcomes for poverty related to industry cluster policies, the location of payday lending and check cashing establishments with respect to minority populations, occupation clusters in the U.S., and the movement of minority populations into the suburbs of U.S. cities. My work also addresses more abstract questions, such as the role of agglomeration economies in defining the success of cities within complex economic system and the relative merit of using hierarchical linear models as opposed to spatial autoregressive models in a context where the nature of the data-generating process is uncertain.
    In addition to the above research interests, I have a series of specific projects assessing the impacts of a Walmart store moving into an urban location that would be a perfect project for an MGIS student. I did an analysis of this type for a client in Seattle and have had requests from organizations in Atlanta, Denver, and LA to repeat the work elsewhere. The work would involve market scope analysis/gravity model work and could be made more sophisticated through the introduction of network/time distance measures. If a student wanted to have an immediate impact on an ongoing policy debate and have a clear and documented impact as a result of their work I would be most happy to open up a conversation between the student and one of these groups and assist in the preparation of the project.

Dr. Pat Kennelly (Patrick.Kennelly@liu.edu)

Keywords: Cartography, hillshading, terrain representation, 3D mapping, shadowing, GIS analysis

Brief descriptions of ongoing research projects:
Terrain and subsurface cartographic representation, visualization, imaging, and analysis. Use of geographic information systems in geological, environmental, and spatial analyses.


Dr. Brian King (bhk2@psu.edu)

Keywords: conservation, development, Southern Africa, health

Brief descriptions of ongoing research projects:
I have completed long-term research to analyze how South Africa's socio-spatial history is shaping demographic patterns, livelihood decision-making, and the institutions of environmental governance in the post-apartheid era. More recently, my work has been extended into other thematic and geographic areas with two separate projects examining how environmental variabilities shape livelihood responses in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, and how livelihood systems in South Africa are being transformed by HIV/AIDS.


Dr. Alex Klippel (klippel@psu.edu)

3D Modeling / Virtual Realities (Oculus Rift and Other Head Mounted Systems): VR will be the next step in geographic data visualization. 3D visualizations on 2D surfaces have existed for decades now, but VR allows users to travel through or be a part of a visualization, interacting with data in new ways. For example, imagine a virtual globe with variables represented as spikes in the virtual terrain, where cities become mountains. There is pressing need for better ways to analyze geospatial information, often stemming from the increasing availability of "Big Data," but there are many unanswered questions. Possible research questions include: How can variables best be presented? What types of data are well suited to VR visualization? How does a 3D representation change one's understanding of a dataset versus more traditional methods?

VR technology can also be combined with geospatial technologies outside virtual reality, such as unmannned drones. VR goggles displaying what a drone "sees" means that real environments can be intuitively experienced remotely. Possible research questions include: How does a birds-eye view from a drone translate into on-the-ground knowledge? To what extent does experiencing an environment through the eyes of a quad-copter differ from experiencing the same environment by simply walking through it?

VR has the potential to be the perfect way to test different aspects of spatial cognition, since experiments can be performed in idealized virtual spaces. Spaces can be designed with specific aspects in mind, free from the complexity of the real world that can confound results. For example, to test the effects of landmarks on different groups of people, one could create a virtual city where all the streets and buildings are identical (and therefore not very useful for navigation), but mountains are visible to the west of the city and a radio tower to the north.

Crowd Science: Citizen science and crowdsourcing is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s research. Examples of published citizen science related work can be found in biology, astronomy, and earth sciences. Simultaneously, there has been an emergence of different types of open sourced earth observation data (e.g., high resolution aerial photos, ground-based photos). This creates an opportunity to for environmental monitoring and data creation from novice citizens. But, if citizens are to be used in environmental research and monitoring, there needs to be a more rigorous evaluation of humans’ cognitive ability to interpret and classify environmental features. Our research explores the extent to which citizen science can be used to sense and measure the environment and contribute to the creation and validation of environmental data.

Spatial Language / Natural Language Processing: In our research, we are investigating how humans use spatial concepts, in particular spatial relations such as near, close, north, at, etc., in natural language. The main goals of this research are to gain a better understanding of how the meaning of spatial relations is affected by different contexts such as the type of the involved objects, their size, shape, etc. and to derive computational models from the collected data to improve current geographic information retrieval approaches or language production systems. Our research is based on crowdsourcing approaches and the analysis of text extracted from web documents using natural language processing and geocoding tools as well as data integration approaches that seek to combine information from different web services and sources of geographic data (OSM, Geonames, DBpedia, etc.). There are plenty of opportunities for students to get involved in this research endeavor, for instance by investigating / analyzing a particular spatial or context aspect, or by looking to improve our extraction, natural language processing, geocoding, or data integration methods.

Cross-cultural Studies: We are interested in places the above research topics into a cross-cultural / cross-linguistic context.


Dr. Stephen Matthews (sxm27@psu.edu)

  • Neighborhood Change, focusing on Race/Ethnic Segregation
    I am interested in a suit of issues associated with neighborhood change. On the one hand the research focuses on determinants of race/ethnic segregation and draws on census demographics. We use exploratory spatial data analysis, spatial econometrics and geographically weighted regression to look identify and examine local processes. An extension to this would use multilevel models to look at determinants of change at multiple levels of geography, focusing on functional areas such as school districts and urban places (not tracts or ZIP codes).
  • Obesogenic Environments
    I am involved in several projects that focus on the either or both diet and exercise. My own work focuses on food environments and currently working on national projects as well as one based in Philadelphia. A proposed study will look at comparing activity spaces and residential environments in Chicago based on the integration on GPS, accelerometers, food-recall surveys, etc. I work with teams on physical activity research focusing on tools for synthesizing GPS/accelerometer data logs.
  • Spatial Polygamy & Contextual Exposures
    More generally I am interested in the concept I call spatial polygamy and contextual exposures (SPACEs). This work stems from my work in geoethnography where I link ethnographic data and GIS/spatial data to explore exposure to place. In this work it is increasingly evident to me that residential neighborhood context (whether defined by demographers as a census unit) or physical activity researchers as a network buffer) is a poor proxy for measuring individual exposures across space and time (Matthews, 2011 - spatial polygamy). We are all spatially polygamous interacting with multiple spaces but the dominant conceptualization of exposure in the social sciences focuses on residential neighborhood.
  • Cancer Research & Health Geographies
    I have studied cancer and geographies of health issues for a while now. My work in cancer research has looked at cancer screening, cancer diagnosis, cancer treatment and survivorship. I have also done work focusing on women's health, child health, adolescent health, and all-cause mortality (this work includes international work in Nepal and South Africa). In all of these health projects geospatial data and spatial statistical analysis have been central to the work.

Dr. Anthony C. Robinson (arobinson@psu.edu)

An MGIS student working with Dr. Robinson could focus on:

  1. Analyzing the geographic dimensions of learner engagement data from online courses, including MOOCs.
  2. User-centered design and evaluation of new GIS/Visualization tools, including the use of qualitative and quantitative evaluation methodologies and technical approaches like eye-tracking.
  3. Understanding and designing methods to support collaboration in GIS/Visualization.
  4. Developing and evaluating interactive visual methods for representing and analyzing geographic content from social media data sources.
  5. Cartography and Map Design research (symbology challenges, multimedia cartography, understanding the cartographic design process, developing new visual methods for representing geographic data, etc...).
  6. Medical/Health Geographics and Epidemiology, with a particular focus on cancer epidemiology, visualizing health-related demographic data, and designing GIS Systems to work for health professionals.
  7. Emergency/Crisis Management and GIS, including system design and evaluation.

For more ideas, see recent research published by Dr. Robinson here.


Dr. Alan Taylor (aht1@psu.edu)

Keywords: Forest Ecology, Fire Ecology, Climate Change, Vegetation Change, Conservation of Natural Resources, Forestry, Paleoecology, Dendrochronology

  1. Fire climate interactions in California and the American West
  2. Forest changes in Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park
  3. Forest Changes in Lassen Volcanic National Park
  4. Identifying Spatially Explicit Presettlement Vegetation Conditions in the Lake Tahoe Basin
  5. Patterns of late 19th high severity fire in the southern Cascades
  6. Mapping surface and canopy fuels for fire behavior analysis in the southern Cascades
  7. Climate and treeline expansion in the western US.8) Estimating forest net ecosystem exchange using carbon isotopes in tree rings

Dr. Lakshman Yapa (lxy3@psu.edu)

Urban Poverty and Food Production Study -- Spatial Modeling

As part of my larger work I am working with a group of urban farmers in Philadelphia looking at the potential for producing food in the city. I have lots of people in my group who know the subject well. Many of them are farmers in Philadelphia. I could certainly use another MGIS student who is interested in issues of urban poverty, nutrition, and food production in the city.  I need someone who knows how to manipulate land cover data and knows modeling techniques within ArcGIS spatial analyst.


Dr. Brent Yarnal (alibar@psu.edu)

Areas of current research interest

  • Climate change impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation
  • Greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation
  • Natural hazards impacts and vulnerability, especially as related to severe weather and climate
  • Tool development for vulnerability assessment

Brief descriptions of ongoing/recent projects

Most of my recent research has been on: (1) determining vulnerability and impacts of hurricane storm surge both today and in the future as enhanced by sea level rise; (2) estimating local greenhouse gas emissions from municipalities and other local entities (e.g., college campuses), including ways of mitigating these emissions; and (3) developing online tools to help local entities (e.g., municipalities, community water systems) assess their vulnerability to natural hazards and climate change.