Data Scientist

Physics alumnus Joseph Corbett remembers lecturers who were skilled at making concepts engaging and accessible, and his MSc peers, who were always up for a laugh after a long day writing their theses.

Joseph Corbett. Photo: Kelsi Doscher.
Joseph Corbett. Photo: Kelsi Doscher.

Key facts:

Career: Data Scientist
Programme: Master of Science in Physics

“THEY WERE A really supportive group of people who were always ready to discuss physics, have a laugh, or grab a beer after a long day writing our theses. Towards the end of my degree I participated in actual research projects – such as setting up a radiometer station – which provided practical skills for my future career.”

And what a meteoric career sofar. After graduating in 2010 with a Master of Science in Physics, Joseph worked for seven years as a research scientist in the Climate Science Branch at NASA Langley Research Center. When he returned to New Zealand, Joseph headed up the data science division at Flick Electric, and he now works as a data scientist for Xerra Earth Observation Institute (formerly the Centre for Space Science Technology).

For many of us, our understanding of the use of Earth observation (EO) satellite data is limited to Google Maps (“Look,there’s our house! And is that you mowing the lawn?”), or the weather reports offered by MetService. For Joseph, EO data has the power to generate unique insights for everything from regional and urban planning to disaster prediction and response.

You spent seven years working for NASA. Was this a dream role for you?

Working at NASA was an amazing experience. I had been interested in satellite remote sensing work for a number of years, so getting the opportunity to work with an extremely talented group of people on missions that had an impact on our understanding of the Earth’s climate was incredible.

My masters supervisor, Professor Roger Davies, had returned to New Zealand from the US, where he had been working at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was still involved with a satellite mission, the Multi-Angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR), and my thesis involved developing an algorithm for processing data from that instrument. Once I finished my thesis, Roger contacted some former colleagues to ask if anyone needed someone with my experience. Luckily for me the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) team at NASA Langley were looking for someone – six months later, I was in the USA and working at NASA.

The New Zealand space industry has really taken off recently (excuse the pun!). Was this your motivation for returning to New Zealand?

It’s definitely an exciting time for space in New Zealand! I actually returned for family reasons, but while I was in the States I’d been following the rise of the New Zealand space industry through companies like RocketLab and Xerra, so I was keen to get back home and join in.

What do you do in your current role at Xerra?

I am the Data Scientist at Xerra. My role involves working out how we can apply machine learning techniques to process and analyse data from satellite-based instruments. My work ranges from deciding what algorithms to apply, through to implementing them into our research and products.

Can you tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on?

We’ve been working with a lot of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data recently. This is a great data source for New Zealand as it can see through our frequent cloud cover (Land of the Long White Cloud and all). With SAR we can get more information than using typical optical satellite imagery alone. It opens up a lot of possibilities, such as being able to monitor changes in land cover, detect vessels on the ocean, and watch for oil spills.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

One of the projects I worked on at NASA involved flying over the Arctic Ocean. We took measurements that we could then compare with similar measurements produced from our satellite. We spent a month flying back and forth from Alaska to the Arctic Ocean in a NASA C-130 plane. The plane was definitely kitted out more for work than comfort, but it was fun getting out and doing some hands-on science. I’ve always been interested in sea ice, so seeing it up close as part of my job was definitely a highlight.

What kind of impact do you hope your work will have?

One of the reasons I love working with satellite data and images is the constant reminder of how beautiful our world is. I hope that my work will lead to a greater understanding of Earth, and to a more conscientious use of our natural resources. I think the potential for Earth observation data is huge, and there is no reason why New Zealand canno tbe a leader in this sector. I’d like to continue to help grow Xerra, along with New Zealand’s wider space economy.

What drives you?

I like solving problems, especially problems that matter to me. But the yhave to be new problems – or require a new skill or technology. Learning is a big part of what motivates me.

Finally, tell us something about yourself that we can’t learn by Googling you!

I love snow and ice; a big dream of mine is to go skiing in either Greenland or Antarctica (ideally both!).