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The Next Generation: GIS as a Career Choice

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The following is a guest post by Nina Feldman, a former intern with the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress and the American Association of Geographers. Nina is currently a senior at George Washington University, majoring in Environmental Science and GIS (Geographic Information Systems). She spoke of her inspirations and why she became a geographer at the recent Library of Congress’ GIS Day celebration. While interning, Nina worked with the research papers and personal archive of Roger Tomlinson.

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For me, GIS was not a clear-cut choice, but more of a discovery process. As many of you know, GIS in its basic definition is a computer-based system that collects, analyzes, and distributes spatial data and information. However, to me it’s much more than that, it’s a collection of data that represents people’s lives, experiences and significance. Personally, I have always been a collector. Throughout my life, which isn’t really that long, I’m sure I had around 15 different collections. At age four, I started simple, with rocks that I found cool. At age nine, I moved to the more advanced Pokémon cards. At age 14, it was Russian nesting dolls with their exquisite patterns and colors. And finally, today, at age 20, it’s maps. Maps of places I’ve been, maps of places I want to go, maps that friends have given me from their own adventures and maps that I drew myself. At first, I just thought it was another phase of mine, I am a map collector now, soon I’ll move on to something else, or maybe even go back to rocks. But as I watched my wall of maps grow along with my desire to learn, I had a feeling that this wasn’t just a phase.

Geography and Map Division Intern Nina Feldman speaking at the 1016cGIS day at the Library of Congress.

Geography and Map Division Intern Nina Feldman speaking at the 2016 GIS Day at the Library of Congress.

It all started on my first day of my sophomore year after my “Intro to GIS & Cartography” class. I called my mom immediately after, all bubbly and thrilled, saying “Mom! I just got out of my GIS class and it was so much fun! We got to make our own maps about population changes in Vietnam. And we did it all just on one computer program! It was so cool. It’s like I drew my own map!” There was a gasp and she excitedly responded “Aw honey that so great! I’m so happy for you!” There was another pause. “What is GIS?” Since that day I’ve answered that question many times, and it always contained the same few words: geography, spatial, maps, data. But no matter how I phrased it, I always got an unsure nod with a confused face. Only a few months prior I would’ve been dazed and befuddled by those three simple letters as well. Going into George Washington University as an Environmental Studies major, gave me the opportunity to delve into a subject that was such a mystery to me. When people ask me what is so great about GIS, it’s difficult for me to clearly explain, probably because I’m still learning about it myself. And that in itself creates a sense of discovery. I’ve taken courses ranging from “spatial analysis” to “remote sensing” and in each lecture there is another layer to uncover.

Just like my collections, just like my interests, GIS is ever changing. With advancements in technology and the development of new ideas, the opportunities for GIS seem boundless. This is why I love it. Watching this progress unfold keeps me captivated in this emerging field. After studying GIS for three years, I came to realize that what I thought was just a simple map-making program is so much more. It’s a process that takes complex information and simplifies it to make sense of a chaotic world. From making a mock-up map of population changes in Vietnam, to actually tracing features in South Sudan on OpenStreetMap to help first responders in fighting Cholera outbreaks, GIS is an awe-inspiring tool that can help solve real world problems.

In addition to my coursework, my work experiences have solidified my interest in Geography and GIS. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with Douglas Richardson at the American Association of Geographers, as well as with John Hessler, working here at the Library of Congress as an archivist intern last summer. Between the two positions, there was never a dull moment. Whether it was in the office townhouse on 16th Street or working in the Library of Congress basement, my hands were always busy with various types of geographic information. I remember my first day walking into the Library of Congress. John was showing me the reading room and the fantastic collections scattered around the building. Then he brought me to where I’d be working. It was a big sized room with a computer, a few chairs, and a table stretching around the entire room. On that table were piles and piles of papers, books, binders and notes. On the opposite wall, were stacks of boxes, some I think were taller than me. At first, as you could imagine, I was a bit stumped, what was I supposed to be doing here?

But after John explained to me that in these boxes were the personal archives of Roger Tomlinson, the father of GIS, and I would be able to comb through all of his notes and seminars in order to organize them. I’ve never been more excited to see a room full of boxes.

Notes by Roger Thomlinson describing his philisophy of mapmaking, "impossible to map the world--we select and make graphics so that we can understand it." Roger Thomlinson Papers, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Notes by Roger Tomlinson describing his philosophy of mapmaking, “impossible to map the world–we select and make graphics so that we can understand it.” Roger Tomlinson Papers, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

For the rest of the summer, I was flipping through seminars, organizing case studies, piling up binders and labeling over 100 boxes. And I couldn’t have been happier. Because, even though I wasn’t working with computers handling data, or spatially analyzing different satellite images, I was able to grow my passion, knowledge and appreciation of GIS, by organizing the past of its founder.

Transparent overlay made to illustrate the process of thematic feature combinations in GIS. Roger Thomlinson Papers, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Transparent overlay made to illustrate the process of thematic feature combinations in GIS. Roger Tomlinson Papers, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

In my hours of filing and labeling, I had time to think about my own future and potential careers. I found myself thinking about the day my dad told me how he made up his mind on becoming a physical therapist. He said that back in his medical school days, he would walk around the hospital in Brooklyn, passing by all types of doctors, but physical therapists were the only ones he saw, that always had a smile on their face. I remember thinking, I want my job to be like that. I want everyone to be happy and smiling, and even in times of stress or sadness, they would never once think about quitting their job. I’ve heard so many incredible stories over the years from professors and supervisors. There’s John’s crazy story about living in the jungle for months as a cartographer, and a professor of mine who has spent time up in the Arctic working with permafrost. From the inescapable heat to the bitter cold, these people have gladly dedicated their lives and work to “collect, analyze and distribute data” in the most amazing of ways. It was just yesterday another professor of mine told me about a GIS project that was focused on attaching GPS trackers on camels to track their distribution of trade in Africa. Every day more and more people are thinking of ways to use GIS to solve problems around the world. Throughout my years in college, all the people I met, from advisors to professors, from students to interns, and from cartographers to just map enthusiasts, have all had that same passion within them. A passion that drove them to discover something new, to see the world through a different lens.

So, in the end why did I chose GIS as my career choice? Ultimately, it came down to a feeling. I knew I was meant for this field as I sat in the Spatial Analysis Lab for hours perfecting a map, while still having the time of my life. All I need is a pair of headphones, and a window of ArcMap, and I feel whole. I know that I still have much to learn and discover, but one thing I know for sure is that I can’t wait to add some more memories and maps to my collection.

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