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Computer science and the rainforest converge

In a tucked-away corner of Bradley Hall, Dr. Steven Dolins’ laptop sits on his desk, displaying a series of boxes, lines, arrows and text.  For someone who has taught database classes at Bradley University for nearly eight years, it seems like nothing out of the ordinary.  But it’s this plot of data that has brought Smithsonian scientist Rick Condit and 11 botanists from across North America to the Hilltop this week.

For the last four years, Dr. Dolins and groups of Bradley’s computer science students have worked to develop this database on behalf of the Smithsonian Institute’s Center for Tropical Forest Sciences (CTFS).  The purpose of the project is to create a way for rain-forest-studying scientists throughout the world to have the ability to organize their data into one central location.  This database is the solution they’ve been looking for.

The scientists are at Bradley this week for training as data collectors from places like the University of Washington, the University of Toronto, Indiana University, University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and even as far away as Cameroon have set up camp in a Bradley Hall classroom to become familiar with the new system and use it to upload their data to a server at Harvard University, where it is stored.

But why choose Bradley?

“Dr. Condit and I are personal friends and when he started putting this project together, he started asking me all these database questions since I teach all the database classes at Bradley,” said Dr. Dolins, the chairperson of Bradley’s Computer Science department.  “Finally I said, “Rick, why don’t you just let us do this for you?’

“It’s really been mutually beneficial.  Students get really great experience and he gets the benefits of their hard work.”

After that conversation between Dolins and Condit, groups of undergraduate students in the capstone project, a senior design course, began modifying a database created a year earlier by graduate students to include the ability to store the taxonomy of each tree and additional reporting tools.

One of those students was Mark Overholt, who graduated in December and has worked on the project for more than a year and a half.  Since graduation, Mark has been hired by the Smithsonian to continue his work on the project full-time, which included helping to train the scientists to use the new system.

“Since I worked on this as a senior, it’s been fantastic to keep going,” Overholt said. “Each of the scientists here at Bradley this week is a botanist or biologist, not computer scientists.  They are very computer savvy, but they are not familiar with database programming, so our job was to teach them to write some simple commands to make it easier to work with.”

In addition to the work conducted on campus, Dr. Dolins has also made two trips to rainforests in Panama with his students since 2006, allowing them a chance to see their data first hand and meet the people responsible for collecting it.

“It’s great for them to actually get to see where the data is collected,” he said. “You look at these two database tables – ‘Tree’ and ‘Stem.’  You don’t get much out of that.  But if you go there and are able to walk through the rainforest, you can get such an appreciation for the volume of data that is collected.”

That volume includes measuring every tree that is at least as wide as an index finger.  As a result, the CTFS Network now includes data on more than six million trees from over 6,000 species as part of its effort to increase the understanding of the past, present, and future of tropical environments and their relevance to human welfare.

“When we started, we were basically just given some arbitrary numbers,” said Overholt, who was one of the students that made the trip to Panama. “The trip gave us a chance to see what they actually represent.”

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