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UCalgary prof brings 'radically user-centred' approaches to 3D modelling in environment management

Adam Pidlisecky's tech applications help shed new insight on California's threatened groundwater aquifers
March 13, 2017

Adam Pidlisecky, right, University of Calgary associate geophysics professor and ARANZ Geo chief research officer, with alumnus Rowan Cockett. 

Adam Pidlisecky, University of Calgary associate geophysics professor in the Faculty of Science and chief research officer of ARANZ Geo, is driven to empower stakeholders involved in critical environmental and economic decisions — like those facing the farmers in the multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry in California’s Monterey region. Pidlisecky is co-author of a landmark Stanford study that brings new insight into the extent of coastal seawater infiltration in the region's groundwater aquifers.

“Water issues impact everyone — everyone is a stakeholder — but not everyone can access new information," said Pidlisecky. "We’re excited to share the findings of our study as an open-access article, as well as offering our unique, interactive, 3D web visualization tool for public access. We hope this is a step to democratizing access to this type of science.”

Research for the California project was conducted using geophysical sensing techniques to create images of the earth subsurface. Fieldwork was facilitated by a team from the geophysics group at Advisian, an engineering consulting firm in Calgary. This kind of technology could be used in the future in Canada to understand the dynamics of coastal seawater contamination of drinking water and for monitoring CO2 sequestration.

From science to decision

“Every ‘aha’ moment I’ve ever had has happened on a bicycle,” said Pidlisecky, speaking from the downtown Calgary office of ARANZ Geo. “Several years ago, I got really focused on how people make decisions and understand things — in the nexus of design, science and learning — my perspective changed,” said Pidlisecky, who’s known to his students as an innovative teacher and mentor. “Going forward, I became radically user-centered.

“At the same time my perspective on presenting data was changing, I started working with a brilliant U of C student, Rowan Cockett.” Cockett was keen to improve the way students understand 3D concepts, so he create a web-based learning tool, Visible Geology. It became clear to the two of them that the web could help users navigate complex data and decisions — so they launched 3point Science to do just that. Pidlisecky and Cockett are now focused on applying their discoveries, representing the research division of ARANZ Geo, a New Zealand-based company that builds software for 3D modelling of subsurfaces.

“We wanted to enable people to have a rich dialogue around their data so they can make informed decisions,” said Pidlisecky. “Our job is to honour the data while simplifying understanding, so the information is accessible by a range of users, from expert to elementary. We aim to simplify without making it simplistic.”

Helping research meet industry

Pidlisecky said his move to industry with ARANZ Geo does not mean he has severed ties with the research community — in fact, it’s the opposite. “ARANZ Geo has a rich history in research and sees value in continued engagement with universities and researchers.”

At a Banff International Research Station workshop last August, co-organized by Pidlisecky, Cockett and a group of more than 25 researchers refined a project called SimPEG.xyz, for Simulation and Parameter Estimation in Geophysics.

“This project aligns really well with some of my teaching/mentoring philosophies — we are there to create structures, guide inquiry and then get out of the way so the students can run with it,” said Pidlisecky. “SimPEG is a great example of a student-driven initiative that is generating huge momentum, with international attention and participation. I am glad they let me be part of it!”

The station is a global hub for collaboration that brings together mathematicians and scientists studying solutions to challenges in sectors including technology and energy at the Banff Centre. UCalgary contributes in-kind support to the station and Pidlisecky is keeping his eyes open to create other opportunities there.

Solving problems with entrepreneurial thinking

Entrepreneurial thinking is a key concept in both learning and research that Pidlisecky brings to his students, his teaching and his business. Up until this year, he taught a course at UCalgary focused on innovation and design thinking.

“One of the common things between entrepreneurial thinking and design thinking is the focus on solving a problem,” he said. “Solving a problem is not just doing research and saying, ‘We know this is doable.’ It is doing research and translating it into action and then having someone say, ‘I no longer have a problem.’ ”

During the downturn in the Alberta economy, Pidlisecky has hired several University of Calgary graduates to help fill his growing roster.

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