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Su-Yin Tan

Find out how this geomatics professor joined the “space mafia”.

Su-Yin Tan standing beside a rocket.

One can blame movies, television and even the Cold War for giving the impression that space exploration is all about action and adventure. In reality, our trips into the cosmos have more to do with scientific research than smiting aliens. But for one Faculty of Environment geomatics professor, transferring the rigorous scientific work she does on earth, to outer space, is an adventure in itself. 

Papua New Guinea and Edmonton-raised professor Su-Yin Tan is a rising star in the field of remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS). Prior to coming to the University of Waterloo, Tan studied first at the University of Oxford and then as a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge. She also spent some time at Boston University. Along the way, Tan developed two separate interests that have helped her shine as an academic.

“I was interested in getting away from just the physical sciences side,” she explains. “Geography has this kind of identity crisis, with the social and physical divides. I wanted to look at different policy aspects as well.” She started by looking at the intersection of geography and public health and in particular, crime patterns in northern England.

Soon after joining the Geography and Environmental Management (GEM) department here at the Faculty of Environment, she started work applying those same research techniques to study local crime rates in Waterloo Region.

To further these research goals Tan established herself as the leading force behind the Applied Geomatics Research Laboratory, a new Waterloo research and teaching venture dedicated to applying GIS to environmental, physical sciences, climate change, social, and health sciences research at national, regional, and local scales.

But that’s just on this planet.

When Tan is not here teaching the next crop of GIS students, she serves as Chair of the Space Applications Department in the Space Studies Program (SSP) at the International Space University (ISU). Often dubbed, “international space camp” or jokingly as “the space mafia,” the SSP collects experts from diverse disciplines from all over the world to study space. “As one of the few geographers or environmental scientists on program staff, my initial involvement was "accidental," since I wasn't always a space enthusiast,” Tan says.

While studying at Boston University, she became involved in a NASA funded research program which helped grow her interest in space applications.  After years of involvement, she was selected as one of only a handful of SSP Chairs last year, and again this year.

This summer, the program heads to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, where Tan will help organize lectures and workshops delivered by experts flown in from around the world. Tan is looking forward to the experience and sees it as an “opportunity to represent the University of Waterloo in an international setting and to showcase the strengths of the Faculty of Environment’s Geomatics program.”