Dr. H. Peter White BSc'88
You could say it was his love of the outdoors that led Peter to his career as a research scientist with Natural Resources Canada. As a young boy growing up in the Annapolis Valley, it was camping with his family – and gazing up at the night sky – that spurred him to get a BSc Honours in Physics and Astronomy at Saint Mary’s University.
“I was the kid who was always out stargazing,” says White. “And SMU had a telescope—that sold me.” It was at SMU's Burke-Gaffney Observatory that White developed his interest in the planets and their environments.
Exploring the Canadian boreal forest
White went on to receive his Masters in Physics and Astronomy at York University. It was there that his well-known love of the outdoors scored him a job with a remote sensing project in northern Manitoba. Using advanced optical Earth observation technologies to explore the Canadian boreal forest, this project eventually became White’s Ph.D. thesis topic on hyperspectral remote sensing. He modelled how sunlight scatters through a forest canopy and reflects back towards space, thus providing a more quantitative method of understanding the boreal ecosystem as viewed by an aircraft or satellite-based sensor.
Simply explained, this process refers to collecting and processing information from across the electromagnetic spectrum. While the human eye can only see visible light in three bands (such as red, green, and blue), spectral imaging divides that spectrum into many more bands, expanding it beyond the visible. This technology allows for the collection of a richer source of data. “You can start distinguishing various properties of different minerals and vegetation to get a much better sense of what’s happening in a specific area,” White says.
Canada is a world leader in remote sensing technology and analysis. At Natural Resources’ Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation, where White has worked for the past 14 years, he and other research scientists have developed the Imaging Spectrometer Data Analysis System (ISDAS), one of the first systems to process hyperspectral data. With such a rich source of data now available, and with improved systems planned for launch to Earth's orbit in the near future, White says that learning how to process and analyze that data correctly is crucial.
Hyperspectral imagery can be gathered from sensors on both airborne and space borne platforms, with applications in natural resource management, geological mapping and exploration, environmental monitoring, and site remediation. Fortunately for White, he and other researchers still need to do regular field work to “ground truth” the data and validate the applications they are developing.
“Most of what I do is at a computer, but I still try to get out for at least two to four weeks every summer,” White says. He jokes that he’s gone from gazing up at the night sky and imagining other planets, to looking at images of our planet that come from satellites in space. “I’ve gone from always looking up to mostly looking down.”
Staying Connected to SMU
In 2011, White became an adjunct professor in the Environmental Science Program at SMU and is looking forward to exploring various opportunities to get more involved with the university again through that connection. “The ways to incorporate remote sensing into environmental research are almost endless,” says White. “I enjoy exploring this with students as they develop their skills in environmental sciences.” He also maintains ties through the Ottawa alumni branch, most recently competing with his fellow alumni in the annual ICAN Curling Bonspiel.
“It’s been in retrospect that I see how much SMU gave me,” says White. “It was a smaller university and the interactions with faculty, who were always available, were great. You really got the sense that they saw students as future colleagues and enjoyed helping us develop and grow. There was a great rapport.”