Navy veteran and May 2019 graduate Taylor Blackman uses his love of maps and geospatial analysis to make a difference for faculty and student researchers. Blackman has been a student worker in the University Libraries’ Data Transformation Lab, and his GIS expertise has been invaluable to both student and faculty researchers.

“Virginia Tech has given me a chance that not many students, let alone veterans, get to experience. Working in the library has helped me develop professionally beyond what a standard class could provide,” Blackman said. “Above everything, my work was able to help progress the research of others. I was paid to help people conduct research to improve the world we live in, no matter the scale.”

Blackman’s most recent project was to assist Ariel Ahram, associate professor in Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs, in creating data visualizations for his Carnegie Corporation grant funded project, Exiting Proxy Wars in the Middle East.

Ahram and Ranj Alaaldin, visiting fellow of the Brookings Institution Doha Center, explored ways to de-escalate current conflicts by studying how civil wars in the Middle East have been impacted by intervention from outside powers who seek to recruit local forces, aligned with either the government or rebels, to act as proxies.

Ahram learned about data services offered by the University Libraries through Peter Potter, director of publishing strategy for VT Publishing. Potter will help Ahram publish his research papers along with maps and auxiliary documents through VT Publishing, housed in the University Libraries.

“I needed help converting information that was contained in a narrative and analytical account into a way that was more accessible through visualization and more amenable for comparison across cases,” said Ahram. “Data Services helped me organize and visualize qualitative data from our case studies.”

Blackman was assigned the project by Shane Coleman, data curator for the University Libraries and coordinator of the Data Transformation Lab, and it sparked a special interest.

“The project itself was interesting for me because of my time in the service. I was deployed in the Middle East for two years and spent time off the coast of these countries,” said Blackman. “The unrest and prevalence of terrorism in the region is something I prepared for daily as I stood security on civilian ships in the area.

"This year, I volunteered with the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership program and one of the kids I tutored every week for English was from Syria. He left because of the war,” said Blackman. “The places in this project mean a lot more to me than just a name on a map.”

Because Ahram is based in Alexandria, Virginia, Blackman and Ahram collaborated remotely. “It was an interesting experience developing the maps remotely,” said Blackman. “I couldn’t sit down with the faculty member, so we went through multiple revisions and improvised with remote meetings to talk through ideas.”

The University Libraries’ Data Transformation Lab is both a data services center and an experiential learning environment where students walk away with specific job skills and experience in working in interdisciplinary teams to solve problems.

In May, Blackman will graduate with a master’s degree in crop and soil environmental sciences. His research focused on finding ecologically important vernal pools across the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania using LiDAR. “I am a soil scientist, but thoroughly enjoy maps and geospatial analysis. Environmental processes and features are inherently spatial,” said Blackman.

Because of his degree and work in the University Libraries, Blackman is prepared for success.