How I Got My Start in GIS, Sloppy Joes, and Tree Hugging


With this post I’m jumping in on the “how I got my start in GIS” meme. (Thanks to Bill Dollins for starting this.)

For me it was really pretty straightforward. Here’s how it played out:

My adviser sophomore or junior year at Cornell was a man who, shall we say, had a bit of a relaxed personality. This was a guy who organized stunts for his environment seminar such as getting some guy to run across the stage yelling, “tree huggers!” while brandishing a chainsaw. My adviser would nonchalantly continue to lecture to the 300 or so students in the class while this was going on.

He was generally unflappable. However, there was one time when two men streaked naked across the stage during a lecture. Apparently this was not a professor-planned stunt because he abruptly discontinued the lecture for the day. The students were stunned first by the streakers and second by what my adviser said in response. “And that is all,” he said. Or maybe he just said, “Class dismissed.” I don’t remember the exact words but they were perfunctory and unprecedented. This was 30 minutes before the formal end of class. At first we were not really sure if the whole thing was a joke or not but when my adviser left the stage and didn’t come back we eventually filed out of the hall and had an early lunch.

So it was that guy who told me I should take a class in GIS. He said it was going to be all the rage for natural resources managers someday, which was what I was aspiring to be. I took the class, got a gentlewomanly grade of B and that was that. It was taught by Steve DeGloria, a nice man whom I kept in touch with for a while after college. He was probably the first (and not the last) to warn me against trying to start a consulting business. :)

My junior year I applied for a work-study position at the NY State Water Resources Institute, which was conveniently located on the Cornell campus. The position was primarily supposed to be a graphic design job using Pagemaker on their office mac. In the interview I pretty much told them I knew Pagemaker and got the job, at which point I immediately hit the mac lab and spent an entire weekend learning not only how to use Pagemaker but also how to use a mac.

Happily I didn’t completely fail at my first Pagemaker tasks so I was still working there when some GIS work needed to be done. One of the managers asked me to do it since I was the only one around with any kind of GIS experience. I continued to do most of the GIS work from then on out, which expanded as we realized the capabilities. One of my main memories of this time period was that ArcInfo was practically impossible to use if you didn’t know what keywords to search for in the ArcInfo listserv archives. Let’s just say I spent a lot of my time searching for answers using the wrong questions.

During this time something occurred which I call the File Cabinet Incident. A fellow intern was in a rush to tell me something exciting and in the process crashed straight into the filing cabinet in my office. It was awesome.

Another memory from that time was the major snowstorm that occurred the day of a workshop that I was supposed to give in SUNY Binghamton, an hour’s drive away. The professor I was supposed to ride with made me drive since I was from Colorado. This apparently  made me a good snowstorm driver by default.

Lucky for him he guessed right as I did spend my teens doing things like scraping snow off the windshield of my 1850s era, red velvet seats, Mercury Marquis with a long stick. While simultaneously driving slowly down the road to get home from high school tennis practice. Yes, tennis practice during a snowstorm, you read that right. It’s all about having the right gloves.

I also won’t ever forget the map that I made to go on the front of the Susquehanna watershed report that the Institute produced. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that great, but it was a major accomplishment to make a map with digital data. This was due to the special combination of my not having very user friendly software and my being 20 years old.

I gave my first big conference talk as part of that internship too. It was to the 1998 NY GIS Conference on the topic of “Source Water Assessment and GIS.” The most vivid thing about that talk that I can remember is that I inexplicably ordered a sloppy joe sandwich to eat right before my talk. And I was wearing a white dress shirt. Sheesh, interns! (And thanks for all that you did for me, NYSWRI! :) )

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