Picture a solar farm — a grid of dozens of shining panels of reflective glass, each one angled to capture the sun’s light at its peak and turn that light into renewable energy.

Now imagine that solar farm is being built in your town or neighborhood, or even in your own backyard.

Molly McKnight, who earns her bachelor’s degree in geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment this month, is helping to make imagining that a little easier. Working under the guidance of Professor Bill Carstensen of the Department of Geography, McKnight is using geographic information systems (GIS) to help develop visualizations of potential renewable energy fields.

The intention is for these visualizations to be used at planning and county government meetings to give communities and individuals a clearer sense of the impact that new energy projects would have on a landscape.

“We’re creating 3D models in ArcGIS software that would allow a user to type in an address and see what a solar panel field or wind turbine would look like,” McKnight said. “It’s a way of trying to come up with an interactive tool that would allow communities to better visualize a project.”

“Molly has developed code and symbology for 3D views, and she is continuing to refine the realism of her images through lidar [light detecting and ranging] data on trees and building heights along with Virginia Geographic Information Network data on building footprints,” said Carstensen, who is leading the project. “She is quick to pick up on the issues involved in the development of these visualizations, and she’s been a terrific teammate on this project.”

McKnight’s passion for GIS came late in her academic career — prior to coming to Virginia Tech, she was a biology student at James Madison University. A gap semester at California State University Channel Islands introduced her to GIS technologies, and when she returned home, she searched for a program that would allow her to pursue her new passion. She found the perfect fit in Virginia Tech’s Department of Geography.

“What I really like about GIS is thinking through spatial data, and I appreciate that it is applicable to the real world,” McKnight said. “If you think about geographic data, every single data point comes from a location, and displaying that data spatially allows a more realistic view when you’re doing any type of analysis with it.”

McKnight’s experience with GIS landed her a 2018 summer internship with Esri, the world’s leading GIS software company. As a technical support intern, she worked to help answer customer questions about the mapping and analytics software that the company provides to industries around the world. She also conducted research and testing of user workflows across ArcGIS software platforms.

Since coming to Virginia Tech, McKnight has shown a commitment to helping other students in the field. She is an active participant in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Mentoring Program, which connects incoming students with mentors who can guide them through the challenges of their first year at college.

“I work with students who don’t necessarily have much exposure to higher education,” McKnight said. “I’m there to help guide students through the process, to help them avoid roadblocks and point out resources they could be using that they might not know about. I think it’s very important that people from different backgrounds are represented in the life sciences field.”

McKnight won’t be going far after graduation. She will return in the spring semester to start work on a master’s degree in the Department of Geography with Associate Professor Korine Kolivras.

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