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Benjamin Snyder

Graduate student experiences computing in the fast lane

Benjamin Snyder

Benjamin Snyder, a graduate in geography, is using his stint at the National Energy and Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh, Pa., to develop his skills in geographic information systems. Using mapping, he helps locate the best sites for natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

Benjamin Snyder eagerly takes his coffee with creamer and just as readily without it.

“I did not think I was that hard of a person to please, but apparently I am,” he said, thinking back about being an incoming freshman at the California University of Pennsylvania. “It was really hard for me to find a career choice.”

After picking up a book on geographic information systems (GIS), he was pretty sure it would not be that. Then, he went to a class.

Two years, four internships and hundreds of map assignments later, he holds a Bachelor of Arts in geography and a concentration in GIS and emergency management. Presently, Snyder finds himself receiving applicable, hands-on GIS training through the National Energy and Technology Laboratory (NETL) Professional Internship Program, administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. He is spending his first post-university year close to home honing his skills in data collection and spatial analyses.

May 2012 marked the beginning of Snyder’s third, and longest internship at NETL. During his first few months, Snyder developed soil sample maps using spreadsheets of data, ranging from the 1990s to the present.

“Instead of searching through old binders and paperwork, these maps allow those concerned to see the sample locations—and the soil contents that were acquired at each one—in an organized manner that was previously unavailable,” Snyder said.

The effort to collect soil samples originated from an initiative by the Department of Energy (DOE) to assess and strengthen environmental safety and health at its facilities as soil sample data is crucial for identifying and addressing areas of contaminated soil that may need to be cleaned up or decontaminated.

He also uses GIS to evaluate drilling sites for natural gas on the Marcellus Shale reserve, a formation of sedimentary rock stretched across eastern North America, which is estimated to contain about 3.4 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. To extract the natural gas, the industry uses a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which injects “fracturing fluid” at high pressure into the earth to shatter the rock deposits and release the gas.

Snyder mines data that will help determine prime well sites to study the environmental impacts of natural gas extraction, especially on nearby watersheds.

“This data may help the average American citizen by ensuring that the well operators comply with the environmental restrictions outlined in their permits,” he said. “For this activity, I locate detailed public-use maps of each of the top five public lands with the most Marcellus Shale activity; then, I superimpose the Marcellus well data on top of the maps, a process called geo-referencing.”

In addition to that project, Snyder is utilizing GIS to map the locations of NETL-Pittsburgh’s internal fossil fuel-burning units, such as space heaters and boilers.

“Once completed, the maps will facilitate the creation of the annual air emissions inventory report by helping the appropriate personnel at NETL quickly locate and identify equipment needed for the report,” Snyder said. “From a logistical standpoint, this also will help promote accountability and proper maintenance of these units.”

Through these assignments, Snyder gets to apply his textbook and classroom knowledge to real-world situations.

“I think the NETL program is a good resume builder for students, allowing them to gain experience they probably would not get anywhere else,” said Environmental Branch Supervisor Eli George, who also is Snyder’s mentor.

Even when Snyder is not at NETL, he spends time with GIS, training online to become more proficient in the software.

“I hope to attain a certification and learn more complex applications of the software, including 3D mapping and advanced data processing,” he said. “I would like to take GIS as far as I can take it; I really enjoy doing the mapping.”

By the end of the program in April 2013, Snyder said he hopes to see a rise in the usage of GIS around the lab, a place he envisions himself working in the future.