Thursday, August 30, 2012

Much Given, Much Expected

Stephanie Heald holds a UNT MS in Applied Geography (2012) & is a PhD student in Geography at Oklahoma State University

It is hard to say that after spending two years in a place that you have no complaints.  I can honestly say that about my experience as a graduate student in the UNT Geography Department.  I came into graduate school with the ultimate goal of graduating in two years and it looks like I will accomplish it.  All I planned on receiving from UNT was a piece of paper that would allow me to take the next step towards my dream of being a geography professor and cross country coach at a small college.  What I have received, however, is much more than just a degree.  I received support from all of my professors, even from faculty and staff that did not have me as a student.  I had the opportunity to be part of the Medical Geography and Health GIS research group and form great working relationships and friendships with other members.   During my time at the University, I also served as an assistant track and cross country coach, yet another step toward my career goals.  Additionally, my first experience as an instructor at the University level came from UNT.  The coordinator for the classes I taught and my professors never kept me guessing.  I always knew what was expected of me, was constantly encouraged, and pushed to succeed.

Through the department I had the opportunity to present at Association of American Geographers conferences in Seattle and New York.  Another student and I were even granted the unique opportunity to travel to Beijing for an international workshop and conference.  At these conferences I met and worked with many other professors and students in various fields of geography.  I saw the Statue of Liberty, the Space Needle, and The Great Wall of China, things that this Oklahoma girl had only dreamed of before. 

Even more remarkable than the adventures I was able to take through this program were the lessons that I learned from working on my thesis. My research opened my eyes to how important and relevant geography really can be. Defending my thesis I thought would be terrifying, but the process gave me so much more confidence in myself.  I feel like I am leaving UNT as a totally different person, and better from the experience.   In addition to running cross country in college, this was the most rewarding and challenging task I have ever undertaken.  I have been blessed to be here and will really miss this department when I am gone. I am excited to continue my academic career at Oklahoma State University next year, as I pursue my PhD in geography.   I will always be so thankful for everybody that gave me the chance at UNT.   I would encourage undergraduate students wanting to eventually work on their masters, to seriously consider this program.  Hopefully, I can pay it forward in my career.  To whom much is given, much is expected!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Transcending the Bachelor's Degree

Muna Shah Graduated with UNT Geography & Economics Bachelor's in 2010

I graduated from the University of North Texas over a year ago, but it seems a lot longer than that. I guess that’s what graduate school does to you. I did not expect my graduate studies to be as ridiculously different from my undergrad as they are, but that’s not to say that I didn’t have any valuable experiences in my bachelor years, because I did. During my last year at UNT, I had to decide on whether to go to grad school or to work. Eventually, I opted for the former – I was still trying to find out what I really wanted to specialize in, and I thought that doing a Master’s would help me realize that and hone my skills and knowledge in the process. 

I am currently in my second (and hopefully, last) year of a Master’s program at the University of Rhode Island in Environmental and Natural Resource Economics (I always find that a mouthful, so I just refer to it as ENRE), which is broadly defined as the study of impacts of economic effects of environmental policies all around the world to tackle various environmental-related issues (e.g. the costs and benefits of alternative environmental policies that deal with problems such as air pollution, water quality, toxic substances, solid waste, and global warming [thank you, Wikipedia]). Having graduated from Economics and Geography from UNT, I wanted to put both my degrees to use, so I thought ENRE would be a great way to go, since it incorporates a lot of things I learned in my undergrad classes (e.g. economic policies, sustainability and conservation, statistical analysis, etc.). Thus, I started the program the fall following my graduation from UNT. While I was glad I decided to do this, I was unprepared for the rigors of grad school that were to follow.

The first semester was probably the hardest. Graduate students have more leeway in the sense that we are not required to do as much coursework as we had to back in college, and we are encouraged to do a lot more independent study. That sounds easy enough. Hah, anything but! The beginner classes were challenging enough to scramble my brains for weeks on end; while I had the basics down from my UNT classes, we were required to go into greater depth, to engage in very critical thinking and to address convoluted details.  In addition we must apply theoretical and empirical concepts to real-world case studies. As an undergrad, Google and Wiki were my best friends for information; here, we have to go through scientific studies littered with jargon, actual raw data, professors and personnel within our topic of study to validate any research. Eventually, I was spending hours on a single homework question, and I didn’t understand half the papers or journal articles we were supposed to read critically for each class. Midway through the semester, I was considering quitting grad school (or entering rehab, whichever came first!).   

But every cloud has a silver lining. So there I was, halfway through my first semester, feeling stupid and miserable especially amidst my infinitely more intelligent colleagues and wondering whether I was even cut out for a Master’s degree. Then, to my surprise (and relief) I found out I wasn’t alone, that my classmates were feeling exactly the same way. That helped. We found a common ground and started studying together, doing our homework and breaking our heads on a single problem for two hours (and going through boxes of graham crackers and Nutella, our standard meal plan in our study sessions). In the process, we got to know one another amidst stories of both personal and professional experiences. I’ve learned a lot, not just from the study material but about life in general from my classmates and professors. Eventually, I was exposed to greater tidbits about the profession, fields of experience, the job market and other career aspects from people I got to know through my peers and seniors.  Which goes to show the truth of what everyone at UNT used to tell me: networking pays off. It was a huge opportunity for development, both professional and personal; you never know what you might learn from the simple act of interacting with another individual.

I will always be grateful to UNT for giving me the heads up on how to deal with graduate school. Even though I moved into a field that’s not strictly geography, my undergraduate work is relevant. To my pleasant surprise, a lot of courses I took back at UNT came in handy for my work. Prominent examples include the GIS classes, and the courses on conservation, remote sensing and map-photo analysis that are great resources for a project I am currently undertaking. If I were to pick two courses that proved most helpful for my Master’s work, I would probably choose GEOG 3190 and 4800. In ENRE, we tackle a number of statistical programs on a regular basis, which for me, would have been harder had I not been introduced to them in class and drilled with both theoretical and practical work. I also remember anxiety over the enormity of work I encountered when I was taking the capstone GEOG 4800; I’d never done a publication-style proposal before and I wasn’t familiar with the type of research involved. Now, I no longer fear the words ‘proposal’ and ‘annotated bibliography’ (though I still have my moments…), which comes in pretty handy when you are in graduate school.
If somebody asked me as a UNT Geography alumnus for my advice on how to go about one’s way after graduation, I would say, whatever you choose to do in your future, whether work or school, make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. For those of you who are considering graduate school for the heck of it, I would like to caution you that’s it’s no joke. It takes real commitment and hard work to make it through, but if you are sincere, the end results will be worth it. Also, make the most of your undergrad life in terms of balancing work and play. Study hard but take time to relax and find yourself. And very, very important – network! Get to know the people around you. A time may come when a little help will go a long way.      

I intend to get a fabulous job right after I graduate with my Master’s, preferably as an out-in-the-field economist or consultant in a NGO working on social and environmental projects (like the Payments for Environmental Services programs that are increasingly recognized) or the international development arena.  I have all types of hopes and aspirations, but for the present, here I am. Grad work is still challenging, but I’m up for it. Be it the crazy comprehensive exams or the insane hours we have to put into our craft, I think I am where I’m meant to be.

 ~Mμηα δђαђ

Friday, December 16, 2011

Undergrads Swaggin at SWAAG!

Hannah Gautsche, UNT Geography Graduate, Fall 2011

First and foremost, I’d like to thank Lisa (Dr. Nagaoka) for inviting myself and others to the Southwest Association of American Geographers (SWAAG) conference in Austin.  Before we left she asked me if I wanted to submit a blog entry about perceptions of SWAAG for the undergraduates who went, what we thought we would get out of it, and then what we actually got out of it.  The experience was incredible.  Geography consists of such an amazing and special group of people, and my last semester at UNT could have not ended in a better way.  Upon our arrival back to Denton, I emailed Allyssa Sobey, Matthew Hendrix, Jeremy Dunn, Sarah McCrorey, and Meagan Hatton asking them what they thought about SWAAG.  Here is the consensus: 

Why we wanted to go:  We wanted to go the conference to get a general idea of what Geographers are researching and to explore our own interests further.  We also wanted to network with other students and professors to expand our knowledge about Geography.  

What we got out of it:  We definitely didn’t expect the conference to be as small as it was, but we are thankful that it was because it allowed us to fully engage in the presentations.  We enjoyed being able to choose the presentations that interested us, which allowed us to better understand how research in Geography develops and is applied.   After attending the conference, we realized how much we love our major and how we love to be part of such a field that relies on multi-disciplinary approaches.  In addition, we felt closer to the UNT faculty; it was heartwarming to be able to converse with our professors on a level that wasn’t necessarily student-teacher related. 

Favorite memories:  Our favorite memories include attending UNT faculty and student presentations of their research and relaxing with everyone over a few beers after a long day of Geography presentations.

In sum, we recommend that other Geography students at UNT go to SWAAG.

Addendum from Dr. Nagaoka - UNT had the largest contingent at SWAAG this year with at least 30 faculty and students, 10 of whom were undergrads.  In addition, two of our undergrads, Chloe Thomas and Cody Brule, won 2nd place in the poster competition (comprised mostly of grad students) for the bike occupancy project research that began in GEOG 2110.   Next year's SWAAG conference is in Las Cruces, NM in October (road trip!).   Hope you can join us!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

My life as a Geographer always and forever!

Jennifer O'Reilly (formerly Schwarz), GIS Specialist, Percheron Acquisitions, LLC. B.S. UNT Geography, 2005

I would say that I was meant to be a geographer. I did not always see this though. I started my UNT career as an Art major. After one semester I soon found out that this was not the path in life for me. So I started to brainstorm and to survey my surroundings. And finally what drew me to the Geography department was the ESSAT building. No joke!  I love nature and science. The building just fascinated me and I soon found myself in the Geography department picking out my classes for the next 4 years. I never really gravitated towards one side of Geography but I did however find my niche when I started working with ArcGIS. My first class was with Dr. Bruce Hunter in Intro to GIS. This class changed my life; I finally felt like I understood something! Maybe it was the program or maybe it was the way Bruce taught. Or maybe it was both! All in all, school finally started clicking for me. I finally started making all A’s and this also translated to my other core classes as well. Wow what a difference one class can make! I knew this was where I was meant to be and I have never looked back.

If I had to give someone a word of advice about Geography, it is that there are always jobs out there for you. I have held GIS jobs for over 6 years now. They have ranged from County to City and now to Land Surveying for an Oil and Gas company. They have all been wonderful jobs and there is so much to learn and do with Geography.  

Monday, October 24, 2011

"So, where is Tajikistan?"

Aldo Aviña
BS UNT Geography 2008, MS UNT Biology 2010

If you’re like me… you probably don’t think about your mornings because you sleep in until the last possible moment. Instead of a hot cup of coffee and perhaps some frozen waffles, you are left to snack on that crumbling Pop Tart carefully guarded by your textbooks at the bottom of your backpack during 3190 or Graduate Seminar.  If you’re like me, and similar to Sarah’s blog post, you have had to field questions like “So where is Tajikistan?” or “So what is the capital of Tajikistan?” or “So what country is next to Tajikistan?” I don’t understand what the infatuation with Tajikistan is either, but you are patient and explain that a Geography major is like an English major – there are many concentrations and applications that go beyond simple trivia found on an old rerun of Jeopardy!

If you’re like me, you want to increase your spatial awareness and that’s why you are here.

I’d like to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about my time at UNT and how it developed me as a student and professional. I don’t mean for it to serve as a guide—you all have your own story—but rather as a way to relate to you.

The story... First, I’ll give you some perspective as to where UNT Geography has gotten me:  I am currently a second-year PhD student at the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth studying Environmental Health Science, less than two years away from finishing. For those interested in a doctoral degree: I want to use this degree to work in public health at the state or federal level; I want this degree in order to put me in a position to positively influence the health of a large number of people. This degree is not for my personal benefit or desire, nor is it a proof of accomplishment to myself. Rather, it represents a set of tools and experiences that allows me to achieve a public health career and to perform duties efficiently and effectively.

My entry into UNT was strange and complicated. I never thought about attending college until my senior year of high school, when I knew music would be the greatest thing. In the summer of 2004, I was in the process of a third audition for the music program at UT and had already been accepted to the music program at Texas State. Additionally, I had submitted my written intent to attend the music program at Texas State. This entire time I had already been rejected from the UNT music program – during the audition.

That left me with two choices, right? Technically yes, but I chose UNT. Why? There is no “why.” A decision I do not regret, I weighed the option of doing music as a career or using a connection at UNT to network and discover what I really wanted to do. So, by fall of 2004, I was a wide-eyed math major 226 miles from home in Denton, Texas sharing a 10x10 foot space in a friend’s garage. “Aldo the Math Major”. I didn’t like the sound of it either. My haphazard and blissful approach to college led to a difficult and disinterested first year. With the guidance of the McNair Scholars program and Dr. Bruce Hunter and Dr. Miguel Acevedo, however, I was introduced to the world of Geography. I won’t dwell on this because you know why you like Geography and you remember that moment of realization, but I had finally found the direction I was looking for. I hadn’t found my niche, however. Not yet.

My niche was discovered later, through undergraduate research and networking. The McNair Scholars program helps those who are underprivileged or underrepresented (but who have the desire to do research) by matching them with a mentor. The mentor is given the task of teaching the undergraduate student research skills in their field and of preparing them for post-baccalaureate life. I was conditionally accepted and matched with Dr. Acevedo, provided that I improved my grades. Through my work with Dr. Acevedo fighting the brush to track woodpeckers and watching bison, hawks, deer and coyote at the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, I met Bruce (Dr. Hunter) and Dr. Oppong.

In short, Bruce introduced me to the world of GIS and Dr. Oppong introduced me to the world of Medical and Health Geography; I decided to think about both as a unit. This can be translated to any field with a geographic application: Ecology, Geology, Genetics, Sociology, Ornithology, the list goes on.

But did I want to be a “GIS-er”? Not necessarily. I knew that I didn’t want to work as a contractor editing fire hydrant databases or in some similar setting. It just isn’t my thing. I wanted to be able to manage spatially-referenced data effectively and correctly. Which brings me to my next point: do you want a career in the world of geographic information science, or do you want to use GISci as a supplement to your career? I have seen many colleagues take these two main routes, and it is something I suggest you think about now. Do you want to be a GIS-er or do you want to use GIS as a tool? Neither is wrong. It depends on your skills, interests and expertise.

I chose to use it as a tool to apply geo-analytical methods to spatially-referenced health data. Through this route I am able to look at the geography of environmental exposures and hazards and how it affects health outcomes.

…And that’s my story.

Moral of the story?  What I would like you, the UNT Geography student, to get out of my journey is that your future depends on you and your actions. My ship was righted after a rocky start, with a strong influence from Bruce and my research mentors. It was not their responsibility, however, to improve my grades, receive that GIS certificate, or publish my thesis – and I will always appreciate that. It is not to say they didn’t help me succeed but rather that they taught me how to be successful.

Yes, but what can I do?  Network, you must. Talk to your peers and look for a research mentor if you are an undergraduate. Developing a healthy, professional relationship with a mentor will beget future success. Think about what you want to become both in terms of a career, as well as your use of GISci in your career.  As you are writing your thesis, think about where to publish. If you can withstand the word “no” then you can withstand the publishing process. Further, once you are published, you become a more desirable job or graduate candidate. Also, you don’t have to publish alone.  As you are working on your research, go to conferences! After you’ve gone to SWAAG or done a poster presentation, move up to an international conference and an oral presentation.

Additionally, start looking for graduate programs now, and network with professors there too! It’s not difficult. You can Google the chair of any geography department with one hand. University departments list their faculty and their research papers. Don’t forget to update that CV.  My point is you have to take the initiative. Think about your future. Talk to a professor if you’re confused, if you need help or if you are ready to begin. Introduce yourself at the beginning of every semester. Who knows, that introduction may land you a director position at the CDC a few years down the line.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Geography: Not Just for Geographers

Susannah Gulick, UNT BS in Geography 2010
Project Manager at M/A/R/C Research

I did not go into Geography to become a teacher, which is ironic because the desire to teach is what set me on the path to pursue a college degree.  I am not sure who becomes a geography teacher anymore, but I do not think it’s the geography major.  Why study Geography then?  The reason for me was simple; Dr. Hudak made a great first impression, the program offered things I wanted to know, and there is the opportunity to wear comfortable shoes (geographers do not wear high heels).  If you are going to put all the time, money, and effort into something it should be what you are interested in; what could be more interesting than interactions with the world around you?!

Unlikely in the making, when I became a geography major I had never taken a geography class; I could hardly read a map, I had trouble with east and west, and had been known to get my left and right confused a bit more often than your average five-year-old.  However, one day I decided to jump in with both feet. 

My sudden interest in Geography was prompted by a somewhat unpleasant conversation with my College of Education advisor, during which I discovered I was no closer to graduating than when I had started because of changes they had made to the degree plan.  I could not bear the idea of pouring endless amounts of money into a degree that did nothing but make me crazy. 

After trying in vain to convince my husband I wasn’t crazy, I declared myself a geography major and never looked back.  From the minute I walked up to the Environmental Science Building, I was hooked.  For years while I worked on my degree my husband continued to think I was crazy; who would hire a geographer, what would I do when I got out of school, would I be “forced” to become a graduate student because I couldn’t find a job?  I am sure students in all disciplines have these same fears and conversations with their supporting loved ones. As time would tell, my fears were for naught; my geography degree has served me very well. I walked into a great job within weeks of graduation. 

I would not have been considered for the position I received without the strong public-speaking skills I developed giving class presentations, or without a firm grasp of quantitative methods.  I loved my classes, and if given the time would have taken every course on the menu.  That said, I loved the quantitative methods and capstone classes most.  I will continue to draw on skills acquired in these classes when I am able return to geography as a graduate student. The classes are designed to push you beyond your limits; they force you to work, rely on, and learn from others. That is not something you will get out of an online program or from a self-taught education.  As a UNT Geography Major, you learn very quickly, there is strength in numbers.  The professors know this too, that is why they are choosy about majors!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Perishable Skills in a Global Context

Chad Smith, B.S. Geography, UNT, 2009. Research Manager with U.S. Department of Defense

When I was asked to contribute to this blog, my first thought was, “This will be great!” Then I faced the reality of trying to put my experiences into a coherent essay. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure how to frame the impact of my education at the University of North Texas on my life and career.

Unlike the masses of students who choose to major in geography as the result of an inspiring course or an engaging professor, I chose geography because of a job I already held. I decided to finish my undergraduate degree while I was working as a police officer assigned to the Crime Analysis Unit. I had recently learned GIS through trial and error, mostly error, over the previous year. I knew that many of the problems I was trying to unravel for my employer could be better understood through GIS and geographic principles. A geography degree seemed like a good idea.

I remember the first day I walked into Dr. Oppong’s office. He immediately put me to work on one of his many projects. I knew that I would like studying at UNT because I would be able to apply what I learned. Strangely enough, Dr. Oppong still puts me to work each time I visit his office.

The greatest outcome of my time at UNT is my relationships with the faculty. Even professors I never had for a class, such as Dr. Bruce Hunter and Dr. Chetan Tiwari, make themselves available for advice and counsel on everything from my latest GIS headache to my pursuit of a graduate degree.

I have worked in two positions since graduation in which I could apply my geography skills. First, I worked as a human terrain analyst with a Department of Defense organization. I was tasked with defining the socio-economic conditions of the operating environment. Typically, this required researching the physical terrain and the ethnic, religious, linguistic, and political groups within the area. I also researched the social, economic, and political systems that control the environment, including the informal systems. Part of my job was to include recommendations on ways to address instability. This required understanding underlying causes and identifying second- and third-order effects. I would not have been able to tackle such difficult and important work without the human geography coursework I took at UNT.

The job was extremely challenging and rewarding. The final product for each project was 4 to 6 PowerPoint slides and a 10 to 20 page white paper.  Every six weeks, I was tasked with a new area, and the process of research, analysis, and reporting would begin anew.

Currently, I am a research manager for a Department of Defense program in Afghanistan. I am part of a team responsible for managing over 30 research teams working in the country. I use statistics (spatial, descriptive and non-descriptive) and research methodologies as part of my daily toolbox. I use GIS software, SPSS, link analysis software, and text analysis software tools. I work with both structured and unstructured data. In the coming year, I hope to develop a population estimate for Afghanistan based on aerial imagery analysis combined with surveys conducted at sampling sites throughout the country. I also want to examine the coverage of medical and educational facilities using location-allocation modeling and network analysis.

I work closely with many different organizations in Afghanistan. People in these organizations often ask what I do. I rely on what Dr. Oppong often cited as the definition of geography: “What is where and why is it there?” Oftentimes, I need more than maps to answer that question. I need an understanding of – in no particular order – history, religion, politics, economics, social network theory, statistics, weather, climate, soil types, transportation, natural resources, and language.

I encourage anyone studying geography to maintain their skills in GIS, statistics, and writing. These are perishable skills that require frequent use. Applying your geography degree to a career takes a little imagination and a willingness to “extend knowledge” as Dr. Oppong used to say.