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Geographer - Remote Sensing

Stuart Phinn is in the Biophysical Remote Sensing Group at the School of Geography, Planning and Architecture at the University of Queensland

In which area or areas of science do you work? When did you first become interested in this career? What education and training do you have to have for your job?
How long did it take to get the necessary qualifications? How has your career progressed? What are the tasks that you do in a typical day?
What skills do you use in your job? What do you enjoy most about your job? What is the most exciting aspect of your job?
What do you like least about your job? What are some alternative jobs that you would be qualified for? What are some of the advantages of working in this field?
What are some of the disadvantages of working in this field? How has your work contributed to science? How has your work benefited society?
Where do you see yourself in five years time? Find out more about remote sensing from Stuart Useful links

In which area or areas of science do you work?

Remote sensing, which involves the collection and analysis of images of the earth's (and other planets') atmosphere, surface and water bodies from satellite and airborne platforms. My work is multi-disciplinary and I commonly conduct projects with other scientists in earth-sciences, zoology, botany, biology, climatology, meteorology, physics and oceanography, as well as natural resource managers and planners.


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When did you first become interested in this career?

At the start of my university course and at high school when I was fascinated by images of the earth from space and the ability people had to detect and map ocean features, weather patterns, minerals, types of forest. At the same time the people involved in these activities were addressing major environmental problems, conducting both image and work in the field. There was a good mix of science, technology, resource management and field work in different environments that really appealed to me. At this stage I also started to work out the more you understand how different environments function, the more likely you are to make informed decisions on how to maintain and utilise the environment in a sustainable manner.


A false colour image of Landsat scenes for Australia in 1994 (image provided by and © Geoimage Pty Ltd. The image clearly depicts a number of distinct environments, the extent of human impact on the country, and our ability to identify and examine these conditions from space.

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What education and training do you have to have for your job?

I have a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in geography from the University of California at Santa Barbara and San Diego State University (1997) and a Bachelor of Science with honours in geographical science from the University of Queensland (1991). My science degree was focussed on geographical science subjects (including remote sensing, geographic information systems, geomorphology and climatology) with a number of courses in computer science, environmental physics, statistics and pure mathematics. Honours is an extra year taken to focus on a specific research project in your area of interest. I focused on establishing the weather systems responsible for different types of wave conditions and beach changes on the Gold Coast. My Ph.D. studies were conducted in the U.S. as there were no universities in Australia covering applied remote sensing and I needed a change of environment. A major part of my Ph.D. was involved in providing research support for the commercialisation of new remote sensing technologies by NASA.

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How long did it take you to get the necessary qualifications?

Bachelor of Science = 3 years
Honours = 2 years (part-time)
Ph.D. = 5 years (at a U.S. university)

How has your career progressed?

My career has progressed quite rapidly since completing my Ph.D., I was offered two jobs six months before I finished, so I was straight into lecturing and research when I arrived back in Australia. Since 1997 I have constructed and taught eight new courses and have acquired sufficient equipment and expert research assistants to build a high-quality applied remote sensing program. Since initiating this program we have had continued work for local, state and commonwealth government agencies, as well as a number of private companies.

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What are the tasks that you do in a typical day?

Teaching (preparation of courses, lecturing, conducting practical classes and field work)
Project design and management
Reading the latest scientific and trade journals
Corresponding with colleagues throughout Australia and the rest of the world
Presentation of project results and plans at public and private seminars and workshops
Writing proposals, reports and journal articles
Fieldwork by foot, car, boat or plane in terrestrial and aquatic environments

Fieldwork being conducted in Moreton Bay to determine the effect of water depth on spectral response from different substrate types, to allow more accurate mapping of seagrass extent and condition
(Left to right - C. Roelfsema, S. Phinn, Dr D Neill and M. Ferguson, Photo by K. Joyce)

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What skills do you use in your job?

Written, graphic and oral presentation/communication skills
Listening/counselling/advising
Project design and management
Mathematical and statistical analysis
Computer Programming
Personnel management

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What do you enjoy most about your job?

My job isn't really routine and I am free to choose how and what I teach and research. As a result I am able to focus on what I feel are key environmental monitoring problems and environments (e.g. urban development in coastal and nearshore areas). I am also interacting with a highly varied group of people all the time and I get to meet a lot of interesting and exciting people (scientists, students, etc) in Australia and overseas. Watching people learn and move on to bigger and better things is also exciting. The travel required for fieldwork is fun (most of the time) and working in challenging environments (mangroves, coral reefs, etc) is always fun, as is the integration of technology in all of this.

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What is the most exciting aspect of your job?

Fieldwork in lots of different environments (especially tropical environments, wetlands and coral reefs) combined with a technological focus on airborne and satellite imaging systems which are changing all the time.

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What do you enjoy least about your job?

Marking assessment items, politics, administrative paperwork and administrative meetings.

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What are some alternative jobs that you would be qualified for?

Remote sensing scientist
Hyperspectral scientist
Environmental program coordinator
Science writer
Image processing programmer
Environmental consultant
Intelligence analyst
Geomorphologist/Climatologist
Project coordinator

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What are some of the advantages to working in this field?

Flexibility to choose what to work on, who to work with and where to work.

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What are some of the disadvantages to working in this field?

The hours worked aren't fixed, so it can take up a lot of your time.

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How has your work contributed to science?

Developed a technique enabling the condition and dynamics of restored wetlands and other environments to be monitored from airborne and satellite imaging systems.
Established how wetlands can be monitored from the current and next generation of satellite imaging sensors.
Established a link between El-Niño/La-Niña events and wave conditions along the coast of eastern Australia, enabling periods above/below-average wave power (beach erosion) to be predicted.

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How has your work benefited society?

Increased the ability for society to be provided with a realistic assessment of the condition of a restored environment or of a wetland environment from remotely sensed data from local to global scales.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

With an established teaching and research program in applied remote sensing, filling the "gap" that forced me to pursue my Ph.D. in the United States. This program will provide a comprehensive introduction and advanced courses on the correct application to monitoring environmental conditions from local to global scales. We will also be conducting research for major private companies adopting remote sensing technologies and providing advice and highly skilled graduates to various government departments for applied remote sensing. In short, we will have established Australia further as a world leader in remote sensing development, teaching and applications.

Find out more about Remote Sensing

If you wish to ask Stuart for additional information, you can email UniServe Science and we will contact Stuart for you. Make sure you include Stuart's name and occupation in the Subject line.

Stuart's Web site

You can find out more about Remote Sensing from Outreach Materials - from Canada Centre for Remote Sensing

Useful Links for Remote Sensing

Aerial Photography and Remote Sensing contains information on satellite imaging, MSS, thermal and hyperspectral scanning, digital image processing.

About Remote Sensing (Australian Centre for Remote Sensing on the Web) includes what remote sensing is, its benefits and uses.

Remote Sensing for Environmental Analysis from Geoscience Australia, includes examples of processed satellite imagery for determining estuarine processes for Port Phillip bay, Port Jackson and Botany Bay, Broken Bay and Moreton Bay

Image processing online - from Geoscience Australia, includes satellite image data for the Murwillumbah/Mount Warning area

CSIRO Marine Research Remote Sensing Project gives some local and overseas examples of projects involving remote sensing.

The Remote Sensing Core Curriculum contains in-depth information about remote sensing and the science involved.

Geoimages Pty Ltd is an Australian company specialising in satellite imagery.

Department of Geographical Sciences and Planning at The University of Queensland offers courses in GIS and remote sensing.

Centre for Spatial Information Science, the University of Tasmania offers courses in remote sensing and the spatial information sciences.


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