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Discover: How Greg Ross uses remote sensing and data for everything from health care to wildfires

In the latest Discover Series story, Dr. Mike has a Q&A with Greg Ross, the MAG Aerospace Industrial Research Chair in Environmental and Health Surveillance at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (it’s a lot to fit on a business card)
Greg Ross is the MAG Aerospace Industrial Research Chair in Environmental and Health Surveillance at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. He speaks with Mike Commito about remote sensing and it’s applications in health care, forest management and research

As part of’s ongoing Discover Series, Dr. Mike Commito, director of Applied Research and Innovation at Cambrian College, who is often referred to simply as Dr. Mike on campus, is sitting down with researchers and entrepreneurs in Sudbury to spotlight the innovative work they’re doing in our community and beyond.

This past December, Dr. Mike had the chance to catch up with Dr. Greg Ross at the Health Sciences North Research Institute on Walford Road. Greg was recently appointed the vice-president, Academic and Research Impact at Health Sciences North (HSN) and the Health Sciences North Research Institute (HSNRI), where he works with health-care professionals, employees and learners to make HSN a leader in health science research. 

Outside of his work at HSN and HSNRI, Greg is the MAG Aerospace Industrial Research Chair in Environmental and Health Surveillance at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM), where he uses remote sensing technologies and data analysis to identify and mitigate environmental phenomena such as blue-green algae blooms and forest fires. 

When Greg isn’t out in the field or in the lab, he spends as much of his time outdoors at his home in Alban. An outdoor enthusiast, the only thing he likes catching more than a wildfire on aerial sensors is a fish on the end of his line. 

During the course of their conversation, Dr. Mike and Dr. Ross talked about his research on remote sensing and how the work coming out of Health Sciences North Research Institute improves health outcomes for patients. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Mike Commito: Before we talk about some of the research happening at Health Sciences North, I wanted to ask you about your own research. You’re the MAG Aerospace Industrial Research Chair, can you talk about that? 

Greg Ross: My research is applied research, so very much focused on market needs and delivering a product, including technology transfer. The project generally is a remote sensing project, involving imagery. Imagery analysis is very complicated nowadays. We have a great variety of sensors that don’t just pick up visual light like our eyes, but they see things like contaminants in water that we can’t pick up with our eyes. We are moving into a whole bunch of areas that have industrial relevance having a partnership with MAG Aerospace is great to advance our work.

MC: Some of your work was highlighted this past summer when it came to outbreaks with blue-green algae. How does remote sensing assist in the effort to mitigate the impact of blue-green algae? 

GR: Algae can actually be really important for our environment; it’s food for fish, and green algae, a plant, can be good to have in our waterways. Unfortunately sometimes a species called blue-green algae, which is more like a bacteria, blooms and it can be toxic. To our eyes both types of algae can look alike which is important because we can’t see if its green algae or blue-green algae. This past summer you might have seen all the reports and terrible situations where pets died in places where they were drinking water contaminated with blue-green algae. So it really is a significant health risk for humans as well as for pets and wildlife. What there is a huge need, in my opinion, for a way of flying over waterways and distinguish whether it is green algae or blue green algae and then take appropriate steps.

MC: How do the sensors determine if it’s blue green algae or not? 

GR: Our sensors can tell the difference between the chlorophyll that green algae and blue-green algae make. Our eyes can’t tell the difference because they are basically shades of green to us, but with the appropriate sensors you can start to tell if a waterway is contaminated with green algae or blue-green algae. In one case, there’s a significant hazard and in the other it’s not a problem at all. Our plan is to develop the technology for a city like Sudbury, which has 330 lakes, and put out warnings quickly if they are contaminated with blue-green algae. Working with MAG aerospace we can work out the methods on how we acquire the data, how we process the data, and, a really important part of this, how we can get that data into the hands of users so they can make decisions such as beach closures and appropriate responses. It’s exciting research. 

MC: What is some of the other applicability when it comes to remote sensing technologies and research?

GR: The other area we do a lot of work with is wildfires. Part of our project looks at detecting wildfires, finding them in the first place, and then once you found them, characterize features like how they’re moving. Even after wildfires are out, there are requirements to see where there are residual hot spots. After a wildfire has gone through a property, you actually have to continue to monitor to see if there are any stumps still smoldering under the ground because they will trigger more forest fires. All of this work can be facilitated with remote sensing and the detectors we have for aircraft. 

MC: How will remote sensing improve forest fire detection? 

GR: Right now forest fires are mostly detected in Ontario by people seeing what they think is smoke. Sometimes it is smoke and it is a fire, other times it could be other airborne particles like pollen or road dust. To our eyes, road dust looks remarkably like smoke depending on what might be burning. A lot of the research is on how we can better discriminate and reduce the reporting of false positives.

MC: For this type of data analysis, whether it’s for detection of blue-green algae or forest fires, what kind of skillsets are required for this work?

GR: It is very multi-disciplinary work. We have people join the team from all kinds of backgrounds, but one of the things I get really excited about is when someone has a strong background in GIS. We have a lot of students, particularly coming out of the college system, that have really strong backgrounds in environmental sciences of which GIS is a major component. Having that understanding of spatial data and how to analyze and calibrate the data is critical. We probably use 10 different suites of software to take our data from A to Z. Many learners coming out of the college programs have amazing skillsets in that area which really facilitates the research that we’re doing. 

MC: How do you take the data your sensors are collecting and distill it down to an actionable item that others can execute on? 

GR: If you consider the users, the people who want to make decisions about the data, probably the product they’re looking for is a really simple map with a dot on it. Literally our data analysis is all about taking terabytes of imagery and distilling that right down into a little tiny text file that just might have some GPS co-ordinates associated with it so that somebody could overlay on a map. That whole process requires many different suites of software in terms of the analysis and making those decisions. The hope is to get that dot on a map directly from the aircraft, to speed information transfer. So, a lot of our research is focused on actually analyzing data and getting it into the hands of users really quickly. You can imagine particularly in the case of fire managers, they’re not interested in data that’s two days old.  Fires change so quickly, the information must be provided in minutes 

MC: Let’s change gears a bit. Can you talk about the type of research that is coming out of the Health Sciences North Research Institute? 

GR: We have a long history of outstanding research being done here and are really excited to see that continue. We also have a number of med-tech companies that use our facilities. Companies like RNA Diagnostics have been sharing our Walford facilities, which is amazing from the point of promoting collaborations. We have more tenants moving in from the sector and that’s something we’re really excited about. The building was built in part to operate as an accelerator facility to help companies develop commercially. 

MC: How does this type of research impact public health? 

GR: Just a few examples off the top of my head. We have a researcher here, Dr. Janet McElhaney, who is an amazing researcher and has large program in healthy aging. Her team is looking at the effects, for example, of immunization and how that can improve aging and enhance people’s health as they get older. That would be one example of really high impact research that has a huge significance in helping to understand how people can alter the future of their health. 

We also have a wonderful program analyzing administrative databases to ask questions about healthcare efficiencies. Personally, I believe that is one of the most important areas in the future we can look to for expansion. Many questions that health managers are asking nowadays relate to efficiencies in our system. Should we be providing a different treatment? How can we predict when we should be staffing our emergency rooms? How can we start to get a handle on hospitals having patients in that would probably be better suited for other environments? You can ask really complicated questions by looking at big databases. 

MC: On those larger administrative questions, how are you going about that research? 

GR: We have a facility that’s called ICES North which houses a huge database and basically researchers mine all the provincial healthcare data and start to look at what we’re doing really well, what we’re doing not so well, and how we do it more efficiently. I think everybody knows there are some challenges with financing our healthcare system moving forward, it’s not likely there’s going to be a lot of additional new investment in healthcare. Really what we have to do to improve our healthcare system is identify efficiencies and better ways of doing things. I think that’s the kind of research we’ll be able to do in a really, really positive way and that’s going to be really high impact.

MC: In addition to having the opportunity to lead these amazing research groups, what else do you look forward to about your role in the coming years? 

GR: I think the opportunity that we have as institutions in Sudbury is to work together. Between Laurentian University, NOSM, College Boreal, Cambrian, HSN and the Research Institute, I think we can pool resources and work together.  Much of what I have the privilege of doing is working with those institutions to identify things that we can do together because there’s tremendous expertise in all of our Institutions for health research. Many of our most important research questions require strong teams with the right capacity, infrastructure and approach. That’s one thing I’m really looking forward to in the coming years. Developing strategies where all of us as academic centres and research centres can work together to pool our expertise to take on some of these really big research questions that would be difficult to tackle alone.  

Mike Commito is the Director of Applied Research & Innovation at Cambrian College. You can find all of Dr. Mike’s Q&A’s in the Discover series.