Scholarship Spotlight: Katie Corcoran

Linking GEOINT and Archeology

By Lindsay Tilton Mitchell • 2014 issue 4

Katie Corcoran’s research demonstrates a strong connection between GIS capabilities and anthropology, and how the two fields work in concert to support humanitarian and national security efforts.

Corcoran, a 2014 USGIF scholarship recipient, earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Central Florida in 2009. After completing her undergraduate degree, Corcoran worked with cultural resource management firms and county-level government in Southeast Florida. While in Florida, Corcoran also had the opportunity to work as an archeologist for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, using historic aerial photography and LiDAR to locate archeologically significant sites throughout the Florida Everglades. This was Corcoran’s first encounter with geospatial intelligence, but it would certainly not be her last.

“I wish I had gained an interest in GIS earlier,” Corcoran said. “Working with these tools for the research in Florida helped pique my interest.”

Corcoran is now working toward a Ph.D. in biological anthropology at the University of Tennessee (UT). She also works with Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Geographic Information Science and Technology (GIST) group, where she handles large GIS and remote sensing data sets. GIST colleague Leanne Sulewski—who previously won 2011 and 2012 USGIF scholarships—was the first to introduce Corcoran to the USGIF Scholarship Program. After applying for and receiving a scholarship, Corcoran plans to attend the GEOINT 2015 Symposium in June for its many learning and networking opportunities.

“Katie is a high-energy and driven, intelligent young scientist,” said Amy Mundorff, assistant professor of anthropology at UT and Corcoran’s Ph.D. adviser. “Her proposed research is innovative and original and will be one of the few to break new ground bridging anthropology, archaeology, and geophysics in an effort to support human rights investigations worldwide.”

Corcoran and fellow UT and ORNL researchers are working to develop a model for the detection of human burials resulting from international war crimes and conflicts. When civilians lose their lives in such crises, their remains are often difficult to locate. In 2013, the team buried 10 bodies that were donated for scientific research to study how the bodies introduce observable environmental changes.

During a three-year period, Corcoran explained, the team will use LiDAR and spectroscopy to determine how characteristics of the plants, soil, and other elements surrounding the graves change over time. The researchers are collaborating with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, ORNL, the UT Space Institute, the Naval Postgraduate School, the DigitalGlobe Foundation, the Department of Defense, and others to access data and imagery to supplement their research. They hope to make it easier to detect human burials throughout the world. The group is also looking to help the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Officelocate the remains of missing U.S. war personnel lost in past conflict zones.

“Grave detection supports evidence collection for legal prosecution,” Corcoran said. “But even outside legal frameworks, material evidence found in hidden graves help piece together an accurate history of events. It can also mean the remains of the found missing persons can be given back to the families.” 

Additionally, the project is an example of how government, industry, and academia can work together for better decision-making.

“Katie has excelled in all areas and shows no sign of slowing down,” said Dr. Devin White, ORNL senior research scientist and Corcoran’s mentor. “This is evidenced by the array of mission partners and data sources she and her adviser have now pulled together for the project. To unify that many organizations and observations for a single humanitarian purpose requires a truly impressive level of subject-matter expertise and personal commitment.”

Corcoran said anthropologists have long been involved in the advancement of U.S. national security, and continue to offer expertise to decision-makers at all levels of government. 

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