Education Inside and Outside the Classroom: Dorothee Grant's GS Experience

Dorothee Grant reflects on her time as a GS student thus far including an internship that has allowed her to take part in a developing research method related to her area of study. 

November 01, 2019

At age 20, Dorothee Grant left the modeling world to enroll at GS, and since then has wasted no time, simultaneously pursuing her bachelor’s degree in computer science while contributing to work in geographic information systems—whose data is used by NASA, NOAA, and the United Nations—through an internship with the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN).

She has been working on a project that involves the creation of datasets that estimate population and population patterns through the measurement of light, as seen from satellite imagery. The implementation of this method by various national and international organizations has the potential to assist in disaster relief, and Grant’s vision of its future implementation reflects her interest in sustainable development and how its use will one day bring new benefits to the world.

"The end goal of the research is to have a better understanding of social trends (from population density to holidays to concerts) through nighttime light imagery. This information could then be used in times of natural disaster relief, or could be used to aid in policy decision making towards sustainable development," said Grant. "With a better estimation of population density we can accurately predict how many resources to send in times of need, or know how many hospitals and schools to build in a growing city. Having a better estimation is neat on its own, but I really want it to serve a greater purpose."

As a computer science major, Grant has learned that her school work and her work at CIESIN often complement each other.

“Work at CIESIN has allowed me to use my CS skills for sustainability-driven end goals. Moreover, I was also able to continue my work at CIESIN as an undergrad research project for credit, so in that way, it translates quite literally as my work at Columbia,” said Grant. “I think it was a really nice experience to have because it makes my academics seem more purposeful. I am using the skills I learned for more than a grade.”

GS student Dorothee Grant smiles for a phot in front of a brick wall backdrop.

This dual application of CS and sustainable development began with Grant’s first project measuring the luminosity of Las Vegas to predict the population. She explained that through running a data algorithm, the program could guess future luminosity based off of data collection from previous days. Furthermore, the program would measure how close it was to guessing the luminosity and then correct itself on the next run. Due to the relationship between luminosity and population, an accurate measurement of luminosity translates to an accurate measurement of population.

Like many GS students, Grant’s passion was not immediately clear directly after high school. After graduating, she began modeling in New York, Paris, and London. It wasn’t until she was introduced to the field of computer science by her roommate in London, and subsequently researched the subject, that she knew it was what she wanted to pursue.

GS student Dorothee Grant poses for a photo sitting on the grass in front of a Columbia building

“Modeling was a big part of my story but not the whole thing. I have always been rather analytical, and even if I did not know about computer science, my actions preceded my decision. My roommate in London told me about what she did and I was really drawn to how she described it. Within one day of Khan Academy's intro to CS I knew that was what I wanted to do,” said Grant.

After making small talk with a fellow passenger on a bus trip, Grant learned about the possibilities available at GS, and was inspired to learn more after discovering fellow models like Sara Ziff had attended the School. Eventually, she applied and was accepted.

“My initial reaction was awe. Not only did the 'imposter syndrome' kick in, but everyone also had such incredible paths that lead them to where they were I felt behind on not only academics but my life in general.”

Over a year later, Grant now feels confident in both her school work, and hopes to continue contributing to sustainable development efforts through similar data collection and analyzation methods by working for an agency such as NASA or NOAA, although she plans to keep her options open. Whatever she ends up pursuing, however, one thing is clear—she wants to make a difference.