Wisconsin Geospatial News

Dr. Frank Scarpace reflects on his career at UW-Madison

Frank Scarpace

Editor’s note: This is the first of three consecutive interviews with retiring UW-Madison professors Frank Scarpace, Al Vonderohe, and Tom Lillesand. All three have had a tremendous impact on geospatial technology not only in Wisconsin, but nationally and internationally as well. We will publish interviews with Al and Tom in our June and August Bulletins.

Frank, let’s start with your educational background and the beginnings of your career. How did you become interested in remote sensing and photogrammetry, and what attracted you to UW-Madison?

I arrived in Madison forty-one years ago as a graduate student in Physics. To step back a little further than that, I went to high school in Italy; my father was in the military there. Following high school I returned to our permanent residence in California. At the time I didn’t really know much about American universities, so I stayed close to home, attending and graduating from San Jose State University. I chose Wisconsin for graduate study because of its highly rated physics department. I graduated in 1971 with a Ph.D. in Solid State Physics. As an aside, John Wiley, the current UW-Madison Chancellor, was a classmate of mine.

Following graduation, I began post-doctoral work in the physics lab here working with lasers. In the summer of 1971, I landed a summer job in Boulder, CO at NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) working with thermal scanning. In fact, this was my first exposure to remote sensing. At about that same time I began to realize that I did not want to spend my entire career working in a lab, especially one with no windows, which was the situation in the basement of Sterling Hall here on campus.

In the fall of ’72, I linked up with Professors Ralph Kiefer and Jim Clapp for post-doctoral work in Civil Engineering. My position soon evolved into an Assistant Scientist attached to the newly formed Institute for Environmental Studies (now known as the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies). In 1974 I was appointed as Assistant Professor within the Institute, and as the saying goes, “the rest is history.”

For the first 20 years of my career here, I generally focused on remote sensing. It wasn’t until Professor Paul Wolf retired for health reasons in the early ‘90s that I really began to direct my research and teaching specifically to photogrammetry. 

You have been a faculty member for more than 30 years now. How have students and the campus changed over that time?

I think in my earlier years students had more high-level technical interests. They were involved in lots of experiments with equipment, testing performance in the lab and in the field. Students today are more interested in applications, in finding and using data to analyze problems and situations. I might add that I have always taken an interest in students and teaching. Unfortunately, a lot of what this campus is about today is research.

Over the past thirty years I have been the major advisor for about 25 Ph.D. students and 50-60 master’s degree students. I have always had pride and satisfaction with my teaching and advising relationship with students. I want them to have a rewarding experience here. I take time with them to develop their interests. By way of example, right now I am working with a Geography graduate student to produce three dates of digital orthophoto images in Kenya. Kenya, and for that matter many regions of the world, are data poor. They don’t have the data riches we have in this country. There is no way that this student could have acquired and processed this data without assistance. I was able to help her get through a complex process of finding and processing the imagery to a useable form.

Regarding the campus, I believe UW-Madison over the past 30 years has had an unparalleled breadth of courses and research in cartography, remote sensing, GIS and related areas compared to other universities in this country. Our courses covered so many areas with many recognized faculty experts. Over the past decade we began to lose critical faculty positions with no replacements. With my retirement, and the retirements this spring of Professors Lillesand and Vonderohe, the campus is going to lose much more with no obvious plan for the future. I hope someone on campus will come to their senses soon, and develop a strategy to maintain the expertise and reputation we have developed here in Madison in the fields of Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry.

Also, I have always been disappointed that people in the University don’t work more with one another. The rewards here come from what one does individually. The highest recognition for faculty comes from research, less so for teaching. In spite of that, this is a great place to work and I wouldn’t have wanted to spend my career any place else.

Frank, in a Fall 2000 Mapping Bulletin interview we talked to you about the software product called Orthomapper that you developed. How has that product progressed, and along that line, where do you see the future of digital orthography heading?

Orthomapper has been a good product, and I continue to make changes and enhancements to it. It isn’t a product that has been advertised much, and many small businesses are wary of investing in it. But, it has been a tremendous aid in teaching students the nuances of creating digital orthophotos from both current and older aerial pictures.

Regarding the future direction of digital orthophotos, the continued development of “soft copy” processes is the key; soft-copy being the collection and measurement of data from a digital image. With the evolution of increased computer speeds and capacity starting 10 years ago, I decided to look at soft copy processes. Soft copy takes tremendous computer horsepower that we have in abundance today. I still have much soft copy research to accomplish. I don’t need more money, just more time.  However, soft copy is the future for creating digital elevation models, the foundation of a digital ortho. Ultimately, I believe, soft copy will replace LiDAR as the most effective terrain collection technique. Currently soft copy techniques work well. Editing the points collected is the time killer, 90% of the points collected are correct, while 10% are incorrect. Correcting that 10% is the problem.

In one more month your professorship will end. What’s next?

My wife and I recently bought a home in Florida. I have never gotten used to Wisconsin’s snow and cold, so we’ll spend our winters there. I am still working with several students and will continue to work with them so they can obtain their degree. The bottom line is that I will stay involved with research and product development just as I have been for years; I just won’t be doing it as a UW-Madison faculty member.

Frank, on behalf of myself, and readers of the Mapping Bulletin, let me sincerely thank you for the success of your teaching and research career, its positive impact on others, and your contributions to the mapping community.

Thank you Ted, it has been a pleasure to work with so many others and has given me immense personal satisfaction.    
You can send your best wishes to Frank at scarpace@facstaff.wisc.edu.