You are here

Summer 2013 Blog - Cyrus Blankinship

Cyrus Blankinship is spending twelve weeks in the Bay Area working at Energy Biosciences Institute. 

August 21, 2013

Work here at EBI has started to wind down over the past several weeks and I find myself in a rush to finalize the material before my departure. Fortunately, this “departure” really just means I’ll be a few blocks away taking classes again. Therefore, even if my colleagues are having troubles locating some of my files or figuring out one of my workflows, I can be there to help in a matter of minutes.

Most recently, I have worked with Alan to add detail to a lot of the original files (described in his last blog post). After we went through that tedious process, we were able to rerun some of our models to come up with a more thorough examination of deforestation in relation to different cropping systems in Mato Grosso. In addition, I have extended this research to two other Brazilian provinces; Tocantins and Goias. Once this was completed, I began the process of sending the files to our colleagues in Brasilia who are working tirelessly to develop a web application so that we can use this data later in our research.

While sending these files over, I have found myself with a great deal of down time (over the past 12 weeks I have ended up with well over 1000 GB of data that I need to compress and upload). Consequently, I have had time to reflect upon my experience this summer and I can safely say that it is one I will never forget. Going into the internship, I had no idea the amount of information I was soon to learn or the breadth of the research. After only 12 weeks, I have extended my academic reach from the study of architecture into agricultural economics, agroscience, the biofuel industry, and the study of land use transitions. In the meantime I have greatly improved my skills in geospatial analysis and am now in the process of searching for internships where I can apply this knowledge. In addition I took it upon myself to learn Python scripting language and have been able to use this to speed up numerous functions in GIS software.

On a broader level, this summer has taught me what it means to step outside of my comfort zone and what this can bring to my own studies. I now feel I have a wider  breadth of knowledge that I can pull into my architectural projects and I cannot wait to pursue that over the course of the next school year. Specifically, I am taking several courses in which I can develop my own projects and I plan on somehow including biofuel and agroscience elements into them.

Lastly, I would like to thank both my supervisor Avery Cohn and colleague Alan Cai. Without them I would have surely been lost and they helped make the summer both enjoyable and entertaining (if you wanna see something funny you should watch Alan try and eat spicy food). In addition, I want to thank Cal Energy Corps for giving me such a unique and amazing experience. I cannot wait to share what I’ve learned with the other interns.

July 23, 2013

Sorry for the delayed post, but as expected the last two weeks have been filled to the brim with travelling, conferences, and work related tasks. This also means that I have an incredible amount to write about and as a result, I’ll break up my experiences into two posts; one on San Diego and one on Illinois. (I’ll attempt to condense them as much as possible!)

It all started two weeks ago when I departed for beautiful San Diego to attend ESRI’s annual User Conference. All my life I have heard my dad talk about how great of a week the conference is and in return, I would make fun of him for being such a geek. Unfortunately, this came back to haunt me when I realized I was every bit as excited to participate in all of the week’s events. “I am officially a GIS nerd!” I kept telling myself.  Nevertheless, I put this thought behind me as I attended the Plenary, poster, and tutorial sessions during the first couple of days.


San Diego Harbor across from the conference center.

The conference opened up Monday morning with a fast paced discussion of new GIS improvements and releases in front of an audience of 14,000. I was particularly intrigued by a new product which combines the capabilities of 3d modeling software (something I am very familiar with through architecture courses) with the analysis procedures of a GIS based system. Later on in the day, I was shocked to see Will.I.Am walked onto the stage… I found this quite odd until he began discussing the foundation he developed to bring science and math programs to underprivileged high schools across the country. In particular, last year he started a GIS introductory program at his former high school in LA. Today, many of the students involved are doing GIS studies to better the community and are presenting many of their findings to the city. More about the foundation can be found in the following here. 

During the conference I also was able to receive some technical help which has already greatly improved my analysis procedure. In addition, I went to several “geodesign” sessions to learn more about the subject and what exactly it entails. Long story short, the field of geodesign is a design and planning method which couples the creation of design proposals with impact simulations informed by geographic contexts. During these meetings, I was actually introduced to Carl Steinitz who is known as the founder of the field. Seeing as this is what I’m interested in in terms of my career path, this was an invaluable encounter.

The rest of my time was spent geeking out on free stuff like t-shirts, mouse pads, pens, and even headphones. By the time I got on the plane to head back to Berkeley, I was well satisfied with what I had gained, both physically and mentally.


A young sorghum crop.

Fast forward to July 14th and I am on a plane to Illinois. The day started by waking up during sunrise, walking to EBI, catching a shuttle to SFO airport, getting on a four hour flight to Chicago, followed by a three hour drive down to Urbana-Champaign. Though I was exhausted from travelling, my spirits were immediately lifted upon walking into the conference center where we were all greeted by our counterparts from the University of Illinois. We then enjoyed a delicious buffet-style dinner as the director of EBI gave a welcoming speech covering an overview of the institutes work.

The next several days were completely planned out with events starting at 7:30am and going until about 10:00pm. During this time I sat through an endless amount of presentations covering individual projects on everything from biomass depolymerization, to feedstock development, to biofuel production, to economic/environmental impact studies. Though some of these were admittedly not as interesting as other projects I heard about, I still picked up an extraordinary amount given my educational background and I feel I have come to understand the biofuel industry much more as a result. The presentations were also broken up by social hours in which we were able to earn free drinks by trading stickers with one another. It may sound like a childish game, but it was actually very helpful in meeting people from other fields whom I would otherwise never have the chance to meet.

On Monday, Alan and I were able to sneak away from the conference to get a better look at the university’s campus. I must say, I don’t think I could ever become acclimated to summers in Urbana for upon stepping outside, we were greeted by 90 degree weather with 75% humidity. After only walking a mile, we were both drenched in sweat. The campus also served as a stark comparison to Berkeley’s for there was not a hill in site. In fact, the entire state of Illinois seemed to reciprocate this. Nevertheless, I found parts of the campus beautiful. Everywhere I looked, I was surrounded by the greenest lawns and massive brick buildings. From an architectural point of view, I could appreciate Foellinger Auditorium for its classical domed shape and ornate decorations. All in all, the campus resembles a very American architectural typology and all of the buildings seemed to be cut from the same mold.


Miscanthus Giganteus (keep in mind that Cyrus is 6’4″).

By far, my favorite part of the retreat was the tour of EBI’s Energy Farm (about a fifteen minute drive off campus). Even though it was still scorching outside, I had a great time walking around all of the different biofuel crops and learning about their individual benefits and drawbacks. One such crop, named Miscanthus Giganteus, has an extremely dense biomass and can grow up to 9 feet tall! I felt like one of the characters from a bugs life when walking around the crops periphery. This crop is still being heavily researched for its use as a biofuel for it grows extremely fast and has a dramatic output. It is also highly resistant to frost. Another crop being investigated was Sorghum. Though it does not grow as fast as corn or miscanthus, sorghum is well acclimated to dry conditions and can therefore be grown in many areas that receive little water (it originates from the edge of the Sahara desert). Last but not least, during the tour we were given delicious gelato to cool us off. Only after I finished it did I discover that it was made of goat’s milk!

By the end of the treat I was filled to the brim with information and felt I could not retain any more. I also felt that I was finally able to really meet everyone who works in the building and I am grateful for the connections I made. Though the past few weeks have been an amazing experience, I now have to get back into full on work mode and crank out an incredible amount of information before my internship comes to a close.

July 3, 2013

The past couple of weeks have been extremely busy here at EBI and I never find myself at a loss of what to do. In about a week everyone here is going to attend the annual retreat in Urbana-Champagne, Illinois, and there is much to accomplish before we depart.

Most recently, Alan and I’s work has focused on comparing our deforestation findings to similar datasets produced by the Brazilian government. What we found is that our results tend to approximate a much larger amount of deforestation than the government and we are now investigating what may be the cause. We have several predictions but want to wait before we make any statements.

In addition, my work has focused on finalizing a series of maps with corresponding graphs. These are extremely helpful in visualizing the data for a larger audience and it will be a useful tool in the later phases of the project. More specifically, the graphs provide concrete numbers (in hectares) of pasture to crop transitions in Brazil.

My time has also been spent on a variety of other tasks and I feel that I am still learning a tremendous amount. Life in the research environment is now feeling normal to me and I am really enjoying it. The abilities I have gained so far make me feel much more capable of finding specific results and I find the world of GIS-based research opening in front of me. I even received a free guest pass to attend a GIS user conference next week in San Diego. There I will attend several meetings on how to acquire and utilize satellite imagery in a much faster, automated way. This will be highly beneficial in the development of our projects methodology for there I will receive specific guidance in a few of our problematic areas. In addition, the conference has a number of opportunities to network and talk about “geodesign”, a field that aligns perfectly with my broader personal goals.

Between this conference and the retreat in Illinois, the next few weeks promise to be some of the most eventful of the summer. My next post will include much more about my personal experiences during this increasingly busy summer.

June 19, 2013

I have now been working at EBI for an entire month and I can safely say that we are in the thick of our research. Though working in a research environment is still a new experience for me, ­­I feel that my time here has already taught me a tremendous amount and I am proud to claim that we are now producing a set of maps that will aid our research down the road.


Mato Grosso Deforestation map.

After getting a better feel for the broader scope of the project, I was able to dive into some GIS analysis of land use transitions in Brazil. More specifically, my work has focused on the state of Mato Grosso. Through analyzing satellite imagery in ArcMap 10.1 (a GIS software platform), I was able to first decipher where deforestation is occurring on an annual basis between the years of 2002-2011. After that, I determined what pastures were sourced from this deforested land, and likewise, which crops were sourced from this pasture land. Finally, I combined this information in order to find how long it took for land to transition from forest to pasture to crop. For those who are unfamiliar with GIS software, it should be noted that all of these findings are presented in the form of maps.

I have also been using my time at EBI to research more scholarly articles, most of which discuss the correlations between deforestation and numerous other subjects such as fire hazards, rainfall amount, and climate change. We have been able to adapt methodologies from these experiments to our own project which (we believe) has made our work more accurate. For example, after acquiring our own deforestation data derived from MODIS imagery, we compare it to another dataset derived from  higher resolution LANDSAT imagery in order to smaller scaled crop systems. I have also been undertaking my own research of the Brazilian culture by going across the street to the Brazil Café and ordering tri tip sandwiches.


View of the Bay from the EBI building.

Working at EBI has not been all work and no play. Last week, the entire building went out to the glade in front of the Valley Life Sciences Building for an annual picnic. There, we were treated to as much Top Dog as we could fit into our stomachs, followed by a game of wiffle ball and the demolition of a poor piñata. The event allowed me to finally intermingle with the rest of the building since everyone else seems to be always cooped up in the research lab. In addition, this Friday we’re having our monthly happy hour and I’m excited to partake in the festivities.

That’s all for this week!  Stay tuned as I delve deeper into the intricacies of land use transitions.

June 3, 2013


Cyrus at his desk in EBI.

My work thus far at the Energy Biosciences Institute has been extremely rewarding and is teaching me an incredible amount. Though I am not overseas like many of the other Cal Energy Corps fellows, the work experience has given me the chance to see a different perspective on life in Berkeley and I am thankful to my coworkers here at EBI for being so welcoming. Because I am not a science major, most of the other research topics in the building are completely foreign to me but everyone is passionate about their work and they do not mind explaining it. It has been a large leap going from being a student to research and I have enjoyed every step along the way. Upon the first day I was given a desk facing a ground-to-ceiling window façade (something I can really appreciate as an architecture student), in addition to a desktop computer capable of performing the numerous operations needed for my research.

Ever since we were given an orientation of the building, my coworker Alan Cai and I have worked side by side as we fully realized the details of the project. The basic premise of it is to uncover where land use in Brazil has transitioned from forest to pasture land and to find any patterns in this trend. We will also look for areas where pasture land (for cattle grazing) has been replaced by single and double rotation crops. This geospatial data will allow us to see what socioeconomic interventions are most feasible in order to prevent further deforestation to the Amazon. This is a highly important concern for the country of Brazil for the agriculture and forestry industry makes up 90% of national greenhouse gas emissions and something must be done in order for the country to reach its emission targets for the 2020 calendar year. Through my experience thus far I have learned just how vital of a resource the Amazon rainforest is and how much impact cattle grazing has on the environment.

My work has entailed compiling and reviewing an extensive set of academic journal articles relating to the project. I was also put in charge of putting together a poster for EBI’s annual conference in Illinois, which is meant to provide an overview of the project to a much larger audience. At the same time I have been teaching myself “R” and Python Programming languages so that I can convert large pixel satellite imagery so that it can be read in ArcGIS for the later phases of the project. Alan and I have also been working on putting together a user-friendly website for the project so that it can be understood and implemented on a much larger scale. Though all of this may seem unrelated to my academic career at Berkeley, I have found that my knowledge of communicating graphic information has proven invaluable and I am increasingly excited to employ Geospatial analysis for better land-use decision making.

UC Berkeley logo

© Copyright UC Regents. All Rights Reserved.
Privacy Statement | Login