USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute

The Value of the M.S. GIST Master’s Thesis

The M.S. GIST master’s thesis gives students the opportunity to design and produce an original, independent, professional work on a compelling topic of their choice. Students work closely with a faculty advisor who serves as the thesis committee chair and two committee members from the Spatial Sciences Institute faculty to produce an abstract and the thesis.

Thesis topics have ranged across the full suite of geographic information science and technology issues, including novel applications of GIS as well as implementations of web and mobile technology. Specific projects span a wide range of fields, including architecture, biogeography, business, geology, history, human geography, natural hazards, planetary sciences, planning, public health and sustainability.

Read previous GIS master’s theses >

Outstanding Thesis Examples

Students have produced thesis projects of publishable and award-winning caliber. Here are some examples of how our students learn the fundamental science of spatial thinking and analysis, and apply that science through technology to produce new discoveries and knowledge:

  • For her thesis entitled “The Bottom Trawl Fishery in the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska: A GIS-based Spatiotemporal Analysis,” Carrie Steves received the 2018 USC Spatial Sciences Institute M.S. in GIST Thesis Prize. In her thesis, she outlined that the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska yield one of the largest sustainable fishing industries in the world. To ensure continued sustainable practices, the effects of fishing activity on the health of the ecosystem should be actively studied. Bottom-trawl gear is a sustainability concern due to its direct interaction with the benthic layer. Impact from bottom-trawl fisheries is difficult to assess, particularly over the long-term. Using fishery-dependent observer data from National Marine Fisheries (NMFS) provides insight on the location and the intensity of fishing effort, which can identify areas most exposed to fishing pressure. She explored the spatial and temporal extent of fishing effort in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands in a space-time cube in ArcGIS Pro v1.4.1 using NMFS data collected between 1993 and 2015, using various statistical techniques to examine spatio-temporal autocorrelation and clustering in this data.
  • Katherine “Kelly” Wright’s thesis “The Chigoe Flea Eradication Project (CFEP) and Tungiasis eLibrary Web Mapping Applications” outlines her program to raise awareness about and to actively combat tungiasis, a painful, debilitating and disfiguring disease of poverty caused by the microscopic Chigoe flea tunga penetrans. For her thesis project, Wright used the efficacy of web GIS as a disease management strategy by establishing a collaborative virtual workspace for aid workers, aid organizations and governments of afflicted regions. She created an app for humanitarian aid workers to gather epidemiological data using volunteered geographic information (VGI) approaches. This information is enabling the medical community to develop treatment options and to help qualify tungiasis as a “neglected tropical disease” by the World Health Organization (WHO). The project’s global map provides the first-ever authoritative global spatial distribution of tungiasis. Wright was awarded the Jacques May Thesis Prize for 2018 from the Health and Medical Geography Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers and was the 2017 USC Spatial Sciences Institute Esri Development Center Student of the Year. She co-authored the article “Control of Tungiasis in Absence of a Roadmap: Grassroots and Global Approaches” published in July 2017 in the journal Tropical Medicine and Infectious Disease.
  • For her thesis “Quantifying Changes in Glacier Thickness and Area Using Remote Sensing and GIS: Taku Glacier System, AK,” Laura Hughes-Allen won the 2017 USC M.S. in GIST Thesis Prize. Her thesis establishes the effectiveness of using remote sensing to quantify long-term changes in glacier parameters including surface area, equilibrium line altitude (ELA) and accumulation area ratio (AAR) by combining a digitized historical topographic map, Landsat images and a USGS DEM. The results of the remote sensing analysis demonstrate significant downwasting and loss of mass at the margins of the Taku Glacier and areas of the glacier that are bounded by bedrock. Her study quantified a substantial up glacier migration of the ELA and a corresponding reduction in AAR. Comparison of the AAR associated with each Landsat scene to the established equilibrium AAR for the Taku Glacier indicated that the Taku glacier has transitioned from a long period of positive mass balance to relative equilibrium, likely presaging a new period of retreat for the Taku glacier.
  • Nathan Novak received the 2016 USC Spatial Sciences Institute M.S. in GIST Thesis Prize and the 2016 UNIGIS International Association Academic Excellence competition second place prize for his thesis entitled “Predictive Habitat Modeling of Sperm Whale (Physeter macroceaphalus) within the Central Gulf of Alaska utilizing Passive Acoustic Monitoring.” In his thesis, Novak proposed an elaborate modeling of sperm whale habitats within the Central Gulf of Alaska using a range of geospatial data. His novel research also was performed in association with Bio-Waves, where he worked together with leading experts in the field of marine mammal acoustics.
  • For his thesis “Geosocial Footprint (2013): Social Media Location Privacy Web Map,” Chris Weidemann developed a novel geospatial application called Twitter2GIS to analyze what locational information Twitter users may inadvertently give away and investigated how third parties could make use of this information. His study was published in the International Journal of Geoinformatics in June 2013.
  • In his thesis “Delimiting the PostModern Urban Center: An Analysis of Urban Amenity Clusters in Los Angeles,” Samuel Krueger mapped the location of urban amenities in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and calculated centrality scores, which identified a strong urban core running from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles. The path, which he dubs “The Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor,” is named for the two main arteries along which the city’s center is concentrated, scientifically dismissing writer Dorothy Parker’s characterization of Los Angeles as “72 suburbs in search of a city.” The Los Angeles Times covered his findings. Krueger’s thesis also earned him two prestigious recognitions, one as first place winner of the 2012 UNIGIS International Academic Excellence competition and winner of the North American Regional Science Association’s 2012 Graduate Student-Author Paper Competition.

Preparing and Defending the Thesis

First Semester: During the one-week Catalina field excursion in SSCI 587, the instructor gives a presentation on the thesis process. Students begin to consider their thesis topic, prepare a thesis abstract and prepare a thesis prospectus. They also start identifying a thesis advisor from among the faculty and two other faculty members to serve as members of their thesis guidance committee.

Third Semester: Students either improve their first-semester thesis prospectus, or they may select a new topic and prepare a new thesis prospectus.

Fourth Semester: In SSCI 594a, students finalize their thesis prospectus and the composition of their thesis guidance committee. Students schedule their presentations and meet with their committees, and they work with the SSCI 594a faculty member, their thesis advisor and writing instructor to prepare the first drafts of chapters 1-3. Students conduct research, which may entail writing code, building an app, gathering data, performing analysis or other elements germane to their topics.

Fifth Semester: In SSCI 594b, students schedule their presentations and meetings with their thesis guidance committee. They complete their research and drafts of chapters 4-5. They work with their advisor and writing instructor to prepare the final draft of their thesis, which they distribute to their committee for feedback. Students and their advisors schedule and conduct the thesis defense. Once students incorporate final changes into their thesis document, they are deemed to have successfully completed their thesis when the USC Libraries accepts it.

Writing Support

Master’s students requiring writing support can work with USC GIST writing faculty from preparation of their statement of research interest in SSCI 587 through development of their thesis in SSCI 594a. Writing faculty work individually with students to discuss strategies for better writing, to examine the strength of ideas and to ensure the integrity of analysis and discussion. While students are responsible for editing their own work, writing instructors will guide students through particular areas of difficulty, working on both global issues — idea generation, clarity of hypothesis, focus, specificity of study — as well as surface-level issues, including paragraphing, sentence structure, grammar and mechanics. GIST writing instructors are faculty members of the USC Writing Program.

Thesis Format Guidelines

Turabian’s (2018) Ninth Edition of A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations is used as the standard reference for style and format for the SSI M.S. programs.

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