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Shaping the future: researcher profiles

Dr. Nicholas Chrisman: 21st century explorer
Driven by his quest for knowledge, Dr. Nicholas Chrisman was one of the first people in the world to create computerized maps. After a stint at Harvard, he pursued his studies in the UK and embarked on an academic career. He moved to Quebec City in 2004 to direct a network of 300 Canadian geomatics experts, known as GEOIDE.
  • Professor, Department of Geomatics, Laval University
  • Scientific director, GEOIDE network
  • GEOIDE receives $3.5 million in annual research funding.
  • Author of two books: Exploring Geographic Information Systems and Charting the Unknown: How Computer Mapping at Harvard became GIS.

Dr. Chrisman took up his position at Laval University in 2004. “Quebec City is a beautiful place, and this adventure has worked out well for me. I’m very proud to have made Canada my permanent home and to have contributed to the development of an extremely competitive research hub in Quebec City,” he says.

Building strong networks

When Dr. Chrisman accepted Laval University’s offer, it was primarily because of the research opportunities. “In the US, researchers work alone and have to do everything by themselves, from organizing projects to applying for funding. In Canada, it’s the opposite. Researchers here are encouraged to share their knowledge. They also have a variety of resources available to support them,” he notes.

According to Dr. Chrisman, information sharing enables researchers to make more rapid progress. “In the past, people went off to conduct their experiments and presented their findings months if not years later. Today, we don’t have that much time to wait around. We have to decompartmentalize the various disciplines, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Dr. Chrisman also notes that GEOIDE students discover a new way of seeing the world. They subsequently apply the philosophy of information sharing to their respective fields of expertise.

GEOIDE: sustainable resource management

The GEOIDE network is made up of nearly 300 Canadian experts who remain in constant contact with each other in a bid to identify best practices in the area of sustainable resource management. Dr. Chrisman is currently heading 34 research projects across Canada, ranging from salmon migration and road networks to catchment areas and climate change.

In Dr. Chrisman’s view, GEOIDE’s survival is crucial for researchers in Quebec City since they stand to benefit from the strengths of other universities nationwide.

“Quebec City is certainly a geospace centre of excellence, although other GEOIDE network centres have developed strengths that serve us well and help us to maintain our top-tier position,” he says.

Forging links with the business community

Dr. Chrisman and his team are facing a number of major challenges. Starting next year, one such challenge will involve forging more direct links between the geospace centre of excellence and the business community by 2012.

Dr. Chrisman hopes that researchers in the GEOIDE network will tackle real-world business issues such as marketing and transportation management.

“Research should always be aimed at practical applications. In the past, we compiled data and then wondered how we could use it. We can no longer afford the luxury of wondering who or what might benefit from our efforts.”

Virtual mapmaking

Dr. Chrisman’s story begins in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Harvard University, where he created his first virtual maps in the early 1970s. Due to the difficulties he’d encountered drawing his own maps, he was excited by the potential of this discovery.

“As a southpaw, I couldn’t draw maps by hand because the ink would get all over the place. And when I started working in the computer lab, it seemed like half of the researchers there were left-handed,” he says with a chuckle.

At that time, the computer he used had barely two bytes of RAM. “Once we put together a map in 15 minutes. It was a technological revolution! We called it ‘instant information’,” he recalls.

Dr. Chrisman went on to complete his PhD in the UK at Bristol University before returning to the US to teach geomatics at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Washington.

Today, Dr. Chrisman is a world-renowned expert in his field, with two books to his credit, in addition to numerous articles and conference papers.

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