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FIVE QUESTIONS WITH SHANE LOEFFLER: He’s making geology accessible by air

Shane Loeffler 1 / 2
Shane Loeffler has developed an app that explains the geology below you as you fly. 2 / 2

Shane Loeffler, 23, grew up in Finland off the North Shore and went to school in Silver Bay and then the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he majored in geology, with a minor in astronomy. Projects in that major had him jetting across the world for research with UMD faculty. It was on those plane trips when an idea was born. Today, it’s a free app for a phone that allows its GPS abilities to tell you what the geology is below you as you fly. It’s called Flyover Country, and his invention has been featured in stories across the country, including Smithsonian Magazine. Today, Loeffler is in Minneapolis, studying for a master’s degree in geology at the University of Minnesota. We asked him Five Questions about the app and his life. For more on the app, visit fc.umn.edu.

Q: It’s one thing to have an idea and another to make it come to fruition. How did you make Flyover Country become a reality?

A: My time at UMD allowed me to participate in research in many parts of the world. On my flights, the view out the window inspired me. It is perhaps the best view of Earth a person can get, save going to the International Space Station.

I remember flying home from a field campaign in the United Kingdom with Dr. Howard Mooers and seeing the Canadian landscape below with all of its odd glacial features and old, old rocks. I realized that most people don’t have a geology background and don’t have direct access to the stories told by the landscape as seen from above.

In my astronomy work, I had developed an eye for what kinds of things work in getting people excited about science and the world around them. I realized that this expansive view downward from the plane could act much like the upward perspective given by the view in a planetarium, that the technology to do something about it was in our phones, and that geoscience data was becoming more easily accessible thanks to National Science Foundation initiatives like EarthCube.

One of my mentors, Dr. Amy Myrbo, found the app idea as compelling as I did, and so we wrote up an outline and plan and began looking for development help. We realized that the National Science Foundation might see it as a way to make the research funded by tax dollars more accessible by taxpayers. So we pitched it to them, and they funded the idea almost immediately, with development beginning last summer.  

The app is functional now, but we don’t consider it anywhere near finished. We have a great development team consisting of two software professionals — Sijia Ai and Reed McEwan. They are just as responsible for this idea (that) became a reality.  

A little over a month ago we received news that NSF was willing to fund the app for three more years. Our aim is to expand the data sources and to improve the visualization of more complex geologic data, making it more useful for researchers and interested members of the public. This grant will fund my master’s studies as well as those of a master’s student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who will be working on developing new visualization techniques.  

Q: Your creation has been causing a buzz. What’s the best reaction you’ve heard about the app?

A: “This is the wildly futuristic consumer product that I believed I would see in my lifetime. It’s here!”

That’s from a comment posted on one of the online articles about the app. I always love it when I get the futuristic feeling this person is experiencing, and it’s a feeling that is basically a hallmark of our time.

Q: Was there anything in your upbringing in North Shore country that drew you to geology?

A: Absolutely. The North Shore is an ideal place to grow a love for the outdoors and the stories that landscapes can tell. Highway 61 is a tour through the heart of a 1.1 billion-year-old volcanic system, along with the much more recent stories of mile-thick ice told by the glacial landscape carved into those ancient rocks.  

How can you not get excited about that?

Also, my mom, Elaine Loeffler, is an outdoor enthusiast, and she passed those habits on to me through a mix of opportunity, freedom and encouragement.

Working at Maxwell’s Woodland Nursery in Finland as a summer job with Sandy Maxwell and Robert Cunningham gave me an appreciation for appreciating the natural world in our neck of the woods through great observation and conversation. I miss it.

Q: What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned in your geological studies?

A: Every single stone or pebble has an incredible story. If something as simple as a rock on the side of a highway can have such amazing things to tell, imagine the story you could unearth by combining all those little stories. That’s geology, and you can apply the same concept to all kinds of things.  

Q: You are having a dinner party for four and can invite any three people — alive or dead, famous or not. Who would they be and why?

A: Carl Sagan, no doubt. His books and television show “Cosmos” are what inspired and convinced me to pursue science and science communication.

My friend Shawn Weddel because he would appreciate that Carl Sagan was at the dinner party as much as me.  

My girlfriend Yarrow Mead because she would appreciate (find it hilarious) that Shawn and I were so excited about Carl’s presence. Plus, she’s as insightful as Sagan sometimes.

Compiled and edited by Michael Creger. Do you have a Five Questions person in mind? Send your suggestion to features@duluthnews.com or call (218) 723-5218.

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