Meet Nina Brundle, Rice Rivers Center’s Geospatial Data Scientist

Dec. 5, 2023

Author: Lynne McCarthy

GIS appealed to Brundle’s analytical and statistical interests, and complements her graphic design and environmental backgrounds.

Nina Brundle in waders, standing with a net over her left shoulder
Nina Brundle

As a student at a rural high school in New Hampshire with every intention to pursue a career in art, Nina Brundle never envisioned over a decade later that she would work as a scientist at a university research campus in Virginia. It is the most recent chapter in Brundle’s journey, taking the opportunity to explore different educational areas and finding one where her artistic ability compliments her scientific passions.

The road to VCU began in Massachusetts, where Brundle enrolled in a local community college to study graphic design. While enrolled, Brundle was not sure that she wanted to continue a degree focused in art, and decided to pause her studies to work in retail cosmetics throughout New England. “I liked graphic design, but I didn’t love it,” Brundle said. “I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.”

The pause didn’t last very long. Soon after, her partner received a job offer in Richmond, Virginia, and they packed up and made the move south.  Once settled, Brundle returned to pursue an associate’s degree and attended John Tyler Community College (now known as Brightpoint). A recipient of a Foundation Scholarship, she graduated in May 2019 Summa Cum Laude with an Associates of Sciences in General Studies.

Brundle took the next educational step, and enrolled in Christopher Newport University (CNU). While participating in an independent study course in the fall of 2020, she became interested in avian studies. She continued her studies on avian research while also focusing on scientific illustration. “Birds are vessels that exude charisma,” Brundle explains as to how her illustrations were so life-like. She continued to find ways to blend her scientific and artistic interested, and in the summer of 2021, Brundle graduated CNU with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology.

Conservation work was something Brundle knew she wanted to pursue as a graduate student, and was already a permitted volunteer wildlife rehabilitator.  A visit to the Rice Rivers Center website introduced Brundle to the avian research and conservation conducted at the center. She began as a graduate student pursuing a thesis in the lab of Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D., associate professor in Center for Environmental Studies.

An internship opportunity that summer opened up in the Bulluck Avian Ecology Lab to participate as a field technician at the RRC Monitoring Avian Productivity and Success (MAPS) station, as well as the long-term Prothonotary Warbler Monitoring Program  The internship program, a collaboration between Bulluck and Cathy Viverette, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies, involved learning bird handling skills, bird identification, taking body measurements, and bird banding. The MAPS program is a collaboration among researchers across North America to monitor breeding birds and their habitats through bird banding. The program is designed to assist in identifying priorities for bird conservation North American breeding birds. The wetlands and creeks of the Rice Rivers Center provides habitat for both Prothonotary Warblers and a wide variety of other breeding birds monitored at the MAPS station.

Working on-site at the center gave Brundle the opportunity to interact with other researchers and explore the different types of research conducted there.  Under the supervision of Dave Hopler, Rice Rivers Center fisheries biologist, Brundle conducted stream surveys including electrofishing, species identification and data collection. Brundle was encouraged the faculty at the center wanted her to find the best fit. “Drs. Bulluck and Viverette encouraged me to lean into my art background as well,” she states. “Initially, I didn’t see how my artistic background was relevant to the conservation career I was working toward, but Drs. Bulluck and Viverette both encouraged me to utilize my artistic abilities suggesting that this was a unique skillset.”

Her continued thirst to expand her knowledge in research while searching for a way to combine her creative background converged with what Brundle describes as a “pivotal moment.” In the spring of 2022, she attended a geographic information systems (GIS) class taught by Jennifer Ciminelli, assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies. GIS collects a multitude of different types of data to create layers of multiple computerized maps that store, visualize, analyze and interpret that data it collects. Location and descriptive information provide specific information to what the end user is looking for. GIS appealed to Brundle’s analytical and statistical interests. “All the bells went off that this is what I want to do.”

Under the mentorship of Ciminelli, Brundle switched to a non-thesis graduate path and soon received her GIS certification through VCU's L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.  An opportunity arose to collaborate with the Ciminelli on a project with VCU’s College of Health Professions. Shoou-Yih Daniel Lee, Ph.D., Senior Associate Dean for Research and Strategic Initiatives at VCU College of Health Professions, was interested in assessing sea level rise impact on coastal hospitals.  Brundle’s Masters project was working on another project with Ciminelli, this time with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources to create a generalized predictive model of archeological significance or potential on selected Wildlife Management Areas.

While interning at Rice Rivers Center, Brundle worked with the center’s faculty, Ed Crawford, Ph.D. and Ron Lopez to produce an Esri Storymap, a collaboration between Rice Rivers Center, USGS, and the Pamunkey Indian Tribe documenting the current state of water resources in the Pamunkey River. She also created a Storymap for Virginia's Healthy Waters Program, which provides a visual representation of recent stream assessments conducted in the Upper Tye and Piney watersheds. The Healthy Waters Program is an inter-agency program led by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Program and Rice Rivers Center in partnership with the Department of Environmental Quality to identify and maintain watersheds with high ecological integrity.

This spring, Brundle’s skillsets and work on these two StoryMaps were recognized at the Virginia Association for Mapping and Land Information Systems (VAMLIS) GeoCon 2023 Conference.  “Understanding the Pamunkey River: A Review of Water Science, Management, and Traditional Knowledge” earned her Best Student Web Application and “Assessments of the Upper Tye and Piney Watersheds: Jewels of the Middle James” won Viewer’s Choice award for all student and professional submissions.

In May 2023, Brundle earned her Master of Environmental Studies (M.Envs) from VCU, and received an outstanding graduate student award. For many students, their relationship with VCU ends when they walk across the stage. For Brundle, it continues as a geospatial data scientist for Rice Rivers Center. To some, the road from art major in New Hampshire to geospatial data scientist in Virginia seems an unlikely path, but for Brundle, everything fell into place. “I never expected my path to lead me to this incredible career, and I’m so excited to start it at Rice Rivers Center,” explains Brundle.  “Through my internship at the center, the collaborations with Jennifer Ciminelli, the incredible faculty support and my graduate education, I have been given the tools needed to be successful, and I cannot thank everyone enough for their belief in me.”