February 23, 2023

What Inspires Research? At CGU, it’s often a blend of curiosity, opportunity, and serendipity

One PhD student is taking a deep dive into how to predict dust storms in Iran. Another is interested in understanding how climate change could alter where coffee is grown. Both are using the same cutting-edge GIS software from Esri, a longtime supporter of the Center for Information Systems and Technology (CISAT). The modeling tool that tracks plant species distribution in an arid environment is equally adept at tropical mountainous zones.

Though the students have not collaborated, it’s no coincidence that their research taps the same datasets. Brian Hilton, a clinical full professor and director of the Advanced GIS Lab, says CISAT’s intimate size and collaborative culture help ensure a cross-pollination of ideas that propels academic inquiry.

It’s a culture that rewards curiosity, unlike many large universities where research assignments are predetermined to take advantage of highly competitive grant funding.

“I tell students that the good thing and the bad thing about CGU is that they own their ideas. I don’t have an array of projects for them to work on,” Hilton says. “When I first sit down with a student, I ask, ‘What do you want to get out of this process? Are you going into academia or industry? What interests you?’”

He sees his role with PhD students as part mentor and part facilitator.

“Think of me as a friendly person on your team who knows stuff. I want you to come up with the idea and find the data that you want—what’s the question you want to answer—and I will help you come up with output. … Students always come up with interesting projects, and their presentations are great.”

He also works closely with students who initially might know little about GIS, because those outside CISAT are welcome to take classes. Hilton says the program draws students from policy & politics, the arts, and other disciplines, as well as those from the 5 C’s.

“I get students in my intro to GIS class who come in not having any idea about it, but they learn how to gather data and analyze it. And it sparks them to do other things,” Hilton says. “My goal is to is help them tap GIS data to accomplish what they’re doing. If they leave knowing that it’s possible, then I’ve done my job.”