Interview with a NatCapper: Joanna Lin

By Sarah Cafasso and Talia Trepte | December 13, 2018

We sit down with Software Developer Joanna Lin to talk new models, solving big problems, and her experience coming as a Master’s student to Stanford from Taiwan.

Question: Let’s start simple: what’s your role at NatCap?

Answer: I’m a software developer at NatCap. It’s been 5 months since I started here. First I’ve been just learning how the models work and what our development workflow is like. My first task was helping the team refactor our test suite. We have tests for all the models and each of them takes a while to run–it was really a pain to run through all of them everytime we need to test a single case. After the refactoring, the tests runtime was reduced by 85% and now uses synthetic datasets to test possible scenarios on our models, instead of bulky sample datasets. Basically, it runs much faster and is easier to use. Now, I’m moving on to a project redesigning the Habitat Risk Assessment (HRA) model. This is a model I actually worked on even before I joined NatCap.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your background and the road you took to get here?

A: I came to Stanford with a broad spectrum of interests. I was thinking about water treatment, air pollution, and groundwater modelling. But then Stanford gave me a really wide range of courses to choose from. What really got my attention was the remote sensing of the ocean course and the GIS course. I was really surprised by how humans are able to detect environmental change just by remote sensing imagery and programming. The programming class at Stanford was really helpful for me to handle those big data sets much more quickly and easily. And so, being able to study here made me able to have the tools I need to do the work I’m interested in here at NatCap.

In my second year, I applied for a research assistant job at Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions (COS). That’s when I first learned about the Natural Capital Project. My mentor, Lisa Wedding, introduced me to Mary Ruckelshaus and a few other NatCappers, and we started to collaborate on arctic risk assessment. I was helping Lisa to collect data sets and then feeding that data into the HRA model. Then I found that our InVEST model could really help me pre-process the data and save work, because the theory is already in the user’s guide and I could just prepare the data that’s specified by the guide and then feed that data into our model. I thought, ‘This is so helpful for researchers, and I would like to do something similar to help make this work.’ I still have a passion for ocean ecosystem modeling work, and I’m still in close contact with COS.

Q: What’s it like to come from the user perspective, and now to transition to a developer?

A: Coming with experience as a user and now becoming a developer in the model directly, I really understand the frustration of formatting data correctly and debugging the model if it doesn’t come out right. I’ve told COS that I’m always available if they need help with error messages or understanding the model. And I’m redesigning the model to make it more user friendly and flexible. Hopefully I’ll integrate some data visualization on the web so anyone can quickly visualize the data after each iteration of the model map. I’m trying to save the user as much work as possible, and I think that’s something I wouldn’t be able to do if I weren’t coming from a user perspective originally.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, like where you’re from and your decision to come to Stanford?

A: I’m from Taiwan and I’ve lived in Taiwan for most of my life. I’ve always had a passion for solving climate change issues. In my undergraduate years, I did a lot of microbiology research that combined my environmental engineering background with things like wastewater treatment to explore solutions.

Q: Any highlights from your time at Stanford?

A: I really appreciate a Stanford lecturer named Evan Lyons. He gave me the opportunity to be a Teaching Assistant of his Advanced GIS course. It took me a while to decide whether I wanted to be a TA, because I’m not a native speaker and I wasn’t sure if I could handle both taking courses and being a TA. But it went really well, and it was rewarding to see the students present their quarterly research after working with them to solve problems during the quarter. I wouldn’t have had this opportunity if Professor Lyons hadn’t given me that, and he didn’t mind if I’m not a native speaker at all. That experience was very rewarding for me.

Q: Was it challenging to be a non-native English speaker in that setting?

A: In the beginning, yes. I was a little unconfident about it. So I would prepare for an hour each time before talking to the students. But then as time went on I felt more confident, and by the end of the quarter, the students gave me really good feedback. I remember there was one student who said, “You know your stuff. Be more confident!” I’m so glad that they really learned from the professor and from me. It was in my last quarter, so I felt like I didn’t have any regrets before leaving Stanford.

Q: What’s your biggest challenge at work?

A: So far, a good challenge for me is developing a whole new model from scratch. It’s also really rewarding, because I’d never done so before. I’ve been watching Rich [Sharp] and James [Douglass] working on such complicated models themselves and I’ve been learning from them. I’m happily prepared for designing this whole new model, but there are several new features we’re trying to incorporate, so that’ll be the challenge. And then there’s also another hope that this new HRA model will be the prototype of our new future data workbench.

Q: What is the thing you like most about working for NatCap?

A: I think everyday I just feel very fulfilled by what I’m working on, because I’m helping people to solve a problem that’s a real world issue. Just by looking at the publications and policy and science that all our amazing team and the people who get in touch with NatCap are trying to apply our model to solve with, I just feel like I’m helping that work to be a little easier… and then it’ll be propagated and eventually make a real change on policy and eventually the environment.

Sometimes when I see climate change news…when I was a student I would feel a little bit frustrated to see that doom and gloom. But now I’m part of this team who’s trying to solve all these environmental issues, so I’m no longer feeling isolated from that area. I feel more hopeful now…so that’s the best reward, besides all the good people here.