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From School Teacher to Spectral Expert

Erin Eckles
 

While Jenn Schmidt’s career has taken some interesting twists and turns over the last 26 years, what has been the underlying theme is a passion for learning, teaching, and science. And she’s just hitting her stride.

Schmidt started her career as a teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana after graduating from Indiana University with an education degree. Her first school was an aerospace magnet school, where she was excited to make aerospace come alive for students. Her curriculum included space flight history, the physics of flight, simulating mission control, performing labs in space, and even attending NASA’s Space Camp in Huntsville, AL.

 

The next four years she taught in the same district at an Integrated Thematic Instruction (ITI) school focused on brain research. She was exposed to Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences and the various ways that people learn – some learn linguistically, some learn through bodily kinesthetics, and others learn through musical exposure. “Overall, there are eight different intelligences in which we all have different strengths and weaknesses. I learned to assess and teach to those various intelligences in order to increase the success of all types of learners.” Schmidt has relied on this knowledge repeatedly when teaching both children and adults.

After a brief hiatus to start a family, she taught physical and earth sciences for five years at a school in Delaware, Ohio. During this time, she earned a master’s degree in geosciences so she could become more of an expert in the scientific content she was teaching. A couple years later, an opportunity came up for her to interview for a spectral analyst position at Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp.

“A personal contact who worked at Ball knew I had a masters in geosciences and that I loved the science, so he encouraged me to apply. I didn’t know everything the job would entail, and even though a few people were skeptical because I didn’t have the technical background, the interview went well. Thankfully, the hiring manager recognized my deep passion for physical science, noticed my strong interpersonal skills, and said he could see that I was a quick learner. So, he took a chance on me, and for that I am extremely grateful.”

The transition from academia to the corporate world was huge, with Schmidt missing out on engaging with her students, but ultimately, she loved the science behind what she was doing and the ability to have an impact on our nation’s security. For twelve years, Schmidt supported the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) at Wright Patterson Air Force Base as a Spectral Subject Matter Expert (SME) in support of the Geospatial Intelligence Squadron. Through her leadership, Schmidt grew her team and also managed over 30 contractors who supported the squadron while she continued her direct spectral support.

“When I started at NASIC, I was quickly pulled into a training and leadership role because of my background and ability to work with others. I taught spectral analysis to those who were new to the team including government employees, civilians, military members, and contractors. It was a great way to pair my two professional backgrounds – as a teacher and my role as a spectral analyst.”

When Schmidt became the lead for the team, she found that a lot of the skills that she gained in the classroom translated very well into defense contracting, such as managing teams, presenting, conducting organized meetings, teaching and interacting with various types of people and learners. “Adults are no different than children. They all learn differently and at different paces. You have to be cognizant, tolerant, encouraging, and patient.”

While supporting NASIC, Schmidt was part of the first hyperspectral space-borne sensor program called ARTEMIS. This R&D sensor contained 480 spectral bands and in order to do her job effectively, she had to immerse herself into the characteristics and capabilities of the sensor as well as exploitation tools to process hyperspectral data. “Ultimately, our purpose was to prove the capability of spaceborne HSI – which we did successfully.”

During Schmidt’s support of NASIC, she had the opportunity to use ENVI® to extract information from hyperspectral data. “ENVI was one of our main processing tools for ARTEMIS data, and I found that compared to other geospatial tools, ENVI was the most robust in terms of the diversity and number of algorithms that can be applied to the data. I like the access to its spectral libraries, which I use often, because the libraries are vast and the signatures are proven. And among other things, the ability to display and link multiple windows in ENVI for side by side comparisons is very helpful.”

The success of ARTEMIS laid the groundwork for other government and commercial hyperspectral sensors. Later, Schmidt was part of a small team at NASIC that was consulted by DigitalGlobe to identify channels to include in their WorldView-3 sensor. After its launch, she conducted a preliminary analysis of the spectral and spatial resolution of the sensor.

Another unclassified hyperspectral project that Schmidt was exciting to be a part of was called Crop Mapping Delineation Team. Their assignment was to map areas of vegetation over an important region in the Middle East. Over the course of several years they mapped and predicted annual growth. This is where she learned the value of detecting and visualizing change – both spatially and temporally.

After working as a contractor at NASIC for twelve years, Schmidt joined L3Harris in 2017 as a Lead Trainer for a large NGA contract called Yorktown. In this role Schmidt developed instructional-led and computer based training curriculum for NGA’s new Geospatial Search and Retrieval cloud-based software. She delivered her training to personnel CONUS and OCONUS at several intelligence agencies such as the NSA, CIA, and NGA, as well for the military including the Army, Marines, and Navy – in support of soldiers conducting geospatial intelligence.

One day Schmidt had a chance encounter with a manager from L3Harris Geospatial who had a similar passion for spectral analysis. After learning of Schmidt’s background and familiarity with ENVI, Schmidt was brought on the team to lead key government customer programs as well as create an eLearning spectral certification to meet the needs of many customers who request this type of on-demand training. The certification will teach the phenomenology, applications, and benefits of spectral data and analysis.

Over the years, Schmidt has seen the increase in the number of hyperspectral sensors but realizes there aren’t enough end-users who are aware or understand what they can do with the data. So, she has taken it upon herself to train end-users within the intelligence and civilian community to better understand spectral data and its capabilities.

“I love that spectral data measures energy both inside and outside of the visible spectrum. When you collect energy outside of the visible spectrum and you visualize that energy with an exploitation tool like ENVI, you can detect and discriminate materials, targets, and surface features that we can’t see with our own eyes. It’s extremely powerful.”

“I’d like to grow the number of people who can utilize spectral data for national security as well as other important commercial, agricultural, and environmental applications, such as assessing natural disasters. To be able to impart my knowledge and enable others to understand and process the data so that they can interpret something meaningful from it is very rewarding.”

Over the course of Schmidt’s career, she has been ready and willing when opportunity has come her way, but it is her passion for science and the people she has the privilege to work with, young and old, that continues to drive her to achieve success.

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