January 12, 2018

A Geographer’s Career Path: Tales of Loops and Circles

Posted by AGU Career Center

Hamdallaye, Niger. November 2009. Photo by Alison Thieme.

As with many Earth and space scientists, my path into the field has been indirect. My interest in veterinary medicine turned towards a broader interest in protecting wildlife habitats sometime during my years in the U.S. Peace Corps. I began my service in Niger, West Africa and after a change in the security was moved to Madagascar where I served for two years. In both the arid Sahel and lush rainforests, each country struggles with food security and nutrition. By working with communities to improve their agricultural yields and crop diversity, I was introduced to the interconnectedness of human communities and habitat health. When communities are mature and thriving, they can have a smaller impact on the surrounding landscape than that of communities that are being established.

Isalo National Park, Madagascar. August 2010. Photo by Michael Westendorp.

This concept stayed with me well after my return to the U.S. and as I began my master’s studies at Clark University. There, a landscape ecology course at Clark University proved to be my gateway drug into the geosciences. One semester in I had applied to change degree programs. I began to combine my background in ecology and country specific knowledge with more technical skills in geographic information science and remote sensing. While at Clark University, I collaborated with the Wildlife Conservation Society and evaluated deforestation rates in Makira, Madagascar. This work culminated in my first oral presentation at the AGU Fall Meeting in 2015 and was the first time I had combined first-hand experiences (deforestation in Madagascar) with my remote sensing skills.


Hamdallaye, Niger. November 2009. Photo by Alison Thieme.

The next time things would come full circle for me was much more recently while working with NASA DEVELOP at Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA DEVELOP is one of three Capacity Building Programs within NASA’s Applied Sciences Program. It provides opportunities for early career scientists to expand their technical and professional skills and use NASA Earth observations to enhance the decision-making abilities of

our partner organizations. While working as a Geoinformatics Fellow with NASA DEVELOP, I was part of a team working with Mercy Corps to evaluate water resources in Niger. This drew on my knowledge of the landscapes and culture in Niger to grasp the disproportionate effects of water scarcity on women and certain ethnic groups. It al

so drew on analytical skills gained at Clark, like using Seasonal Trend Analysis to identify areas with changing precipitation and vegetation greenness. By combining this with the coding skills of my team, we created a tool in Google Earth Engine which will be used by Mercy Corps to identify shocks and stressors related to precipitation in Niger. This second experience coming full circle also culminated in an AGU submission, this time a hyperwall presentation that was selected as runner up in the Data Visualization and Storytelling Competition.

Alison Thieme in front of James Webb Space Telescope at Goddard Space Flight Center. February 2017. Photo by Sean McCartney.

I never imagined that the knowledge I gained while working in Niger and Madagascar would be so directly called upon in later projects. Career paths may never be quite straight, but my career path seems to contain a few geographic loops. My career path also has contained a few overlapping communities. I first met my current Ph.D. advisors, Dr. Matt Hansen and Dr. Julie Silva, while attending a Peace Corps conference. I’m excited to see where my Ph.D. studies take me, particularly now that I’ve come to expect that old skills will end up being transferable to new projects and that things may come full circle again someday.

Alison Thieme is presently a Ph.D. student in University of Maryland’s Department of Geographical Sciences.