GeoInspirations: Ann Fritz - Collaborations in the Field and Across Disciplinary Boundaries

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Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today, our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Ann Fritz from the Department of Environmental Quality in North Dakota.

I got to know Ann while planning for the 2017 North Dakota GIS conference. Her expertise in a wide variety of disciplines, her experience across many projects, her organizational and communications skills, and her passion for geomentoring immediately impressed me. Therefore, it is my great pleasure to introduce Ann Fritz to Directions Magazine readers and, through her story, inspire you to think outside the box about your own career pathway.

I asked Ann to describe her background and what she does day-to-day on the job. She responded, “By title, I am environmental scientist at the newly formed North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality (formerly part of the North Dakota Department of Health). What I really do is manage the department’s geospatial information, coordinate GIS projects, and help make NDDEQ’s data geo-friendly. By background, I have a B.A. from University of Minnesota-Morris, where I majored in English and geology. I have an M.S. in geology (1996) from University of Wisconsin-Madison. I am married and we have three children — all teenagers.  I can’t get away from being a Badger. I’m currently taking online classes towards a Master of Science in cartography and GIS from UW-Madison.  I love to tell my teenage daughters, ‘I can’t do the dishes tonight kids, I have homework!’”

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Next, I asked Ann to describe the most important influence on her decision to enter her field. She said, “This question reminds me of that line from ‘Stop Making Sense’ (a song by Talking Heads): ‘My God, how did I get here?’ I never intended to be a GIS coordinator, geographer, geologist, or even anything remotely sciencey! I believe that I would never be where I am today in my career if it hadn’t been for the small personal setting of a little college on the prairie and the encouragement, curiosity, and enthusiasm of my geology professors at University of Minnesota-Morris.”

“I entered UMM intending to be a high school English teacher. At UMM, freshmen are required to take a freshman seminar — small inquiry based classes. The seminar that intrigued me the most was “Politics of Natural Resources” taught by Dr. Peter Whelan, a geology professor in the Science and Math Division.  As I am interested in the environment, love being outside (the seminar promised field trips), and am interested in politics, I signed up. To state that Peter was a dynamic personality is an understatement. Peter, along with the other professors in the geology department, Dr. Jim Cotter and Dr. James Van Alstine, were constantly questioning, challenging, as well as encouraging, joking, and enthusiastic about everything having to do with the world around us! The interdisciplinary study of geology was a great outlet for my curiosity about our world and why things are the way they are.”

“Midway [through] that first semester of college, I decided to double major in English and geology.  That is the beauty of a liberal arts education: I could choose majors in both the humanities and science departments! My love of all things geo began. When I excitedly told my parents over Christmas break I was going to double major, their response was, ‘Geology? There’s no oil or coal in Minnesota! What are you going to do with a geology and English degree?’ I jokingly told my parents that I was going to write about rocks (and I actually did for a while when I was the editor at the North Dakota Geological Survey). Anyway, my parents couldn’t wrap their heads around what a geologist does. It was much easier to picture their youngest daughter as a high school English teacher, not someone wearing a hard hat, steel-toed boots, and carrying a rock hammer and hand lens. Such were the times in the late 1980’s when I was an undergrad.”

Ann went on to say that, “It’s hard to pinpoint just one person or experience that inspired me; rather, it was (and still is) a combination of people and experiences that encourage me and nudged me forward.  I believe that if you feel strongly about something, you should take action. Because of that, I’ve always sought experiences and opportunities to help me understand a concept better or learn something new — that has led me to help organize our state GIS conference, or to try to improve upon my own skills and further my education by attending UW-Madison (again!). While an undergrad at UMM, I worked on a number of undergraduate research projects with Dr. Jim Cotter, UMM’s glacial and surficial geology professor. I was one of the first participants in UMM’s REU [Research Experience for Undergraduates] for Women and Minorities in Science. I and five other women spent a summer digging in gravel pits, walking through prairies looking for boulder pavements, and researching glacial geology problems in west-central Minnesota. We designed field sampling plans, analyzed sand and clay samples, wrote up results, as well as visited women geologists (Carrie Jennings) and women in the geology graduate program at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The REU program ended with a field experience visiting and walking on real glaciers in the Canadian Rockies. That first trip to the Canadian Rockies solidified my love of geology! You mean if I have a geo-career I can travel for work?”

“After graduating, I worked for a small environmental consulting company as a field technician for about 3 years. There I learned valuable communication, field, and organization skills. (The client does not like to see a messy work-site, for example. Despite the fact that you may be removing hundreds of yards of contaminated soil, it has to be done ‘neatly’).  I’m a lover of learning and realized that I would not be able to advance my career in any industry unless I got a graduate degree. It was during my first time at UW-Madison working on my M.S. in geology that I was introduced to this thing called GIS. I was a research assistant at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, helping create maps for a long-range planning project for Dane County. My small piece of the puzzle was creating a groundwater susceptibility map. The project used raster layers that were either being created by other graduate students or WGNHS staff. My job was to combine them into a model of groundwater susceptibility. I worked under the direction of hydrologist Dr. Ken Bradbury and my advisor Dr. Dave Mickelson. Dave insisted that field checks be completed with all GIS models that I had completed for my thesis — otherwise it seemed too much of a ‘black box’ solution. This was in 1994-1996, AML command line ArcInfo version 6 or 7, if I recall correctly. It did seem a bit like a black box.  I learned how important those QA/QC checks are to your final results. Some of the results didn’t make sense depending on where I was on the actual landscape. If it wasn’t for Dave’s recommended field checks, I wouldn’t have discovered that I made a classic newbie GIS error. One of the grids I was using in my analysis had a different coordinate origin than all the other grids!  I had to re-run the GIS model again, making sure this time that all the grids lined up properly.  Ken was kind and patient as I learned to navigate the groundwater modeling and GIS software as well as the intricacies of graduate school and thesis writing. I recall he gave up an entire Saturday afternoon on a beautiful fall weekend going through my thesis page by page, offering comments and helpful suggestions to me to improve my technical writing.”  

“It wasn’t until much later in my career that I realized that those times at UMM and UW-Madison introduced me to the concept of mentoring. There are key people that influenced where I am today in my career by simple things they said or opportunities that they presented to me — and they maybe didn’t even know it at the time. Mentors such as Peter, Carrie, Jim, Dave, and Ken were there to help guide and objectively see things that I maybe didn’t see.  I would argue that my fellow students at UMM and UWM were mentors as well. While I was at UW-Madison, fellow women geoscience grad students would get together for ‘Stitch and Bitch sessions’ about once a month. We’d knit, quilt, or crochet. From those ladies, I learned how relaxing knitting can be, how important it was to have a creative outlet, and that all of us were in the same boat. We learned from each other’s mistakes and successes.”

“I see my career as a continual cycle of encouragement for not only our profession, but also for each other as geoscientists. My husband and I moved to North Dakota in 1996 when I got a job as a glacial geologist and editor at the North Dakota Geological Survey. Jim Cotter, my professor from UMM, would invite us former UMM-REUers back to campus to meet the young and upcoming geoscientists at the end of every summer as they were finishing their summer of field work.”

“I started out wanting to be a teacher. I think that’s why when given the chance I now like to volunteer my time with young people in any capacity. As my kids have grown, I’ve been both a Boy and Girl Scout leader, as well as mentor for my daughter’s FIRST LEGO League team. I’ve only done that once, but I encourage everyone to check out the continuum of the Lego Robotics competitions — amazing programs. You don’t have to be an engineer or computer scientist to mentor these kids; creativity, presentation, and scientific research and problem-solving skills are also needed.  I think we can all teach and mentor in some capacity and encourage kids’ natural curiosity about our world. I have found that organizations that value their volunteers and want to do right by their programs for youth will go out of their way to help you succeed as mentor and volunteer,” Ann concluded.  

I visited a school in Bismarck while I was there with Ann, and while we talked with the faculty about the use of GIS in their curriculum, it was clear that she is passionate and skilled at being a mentor. One way to be a mentor is through the GeoMentor program.

I asked Ann to name the project of which she is most proud. She said, “I have a pretty awesome family that puts up with my wanting to stop at every geographic marker while on vacation. I’m pretty proud of my kids and family. Not just my own children, but my husband, my brothers and sister and their families too!  Professionally, I am most proud of the fact that I was part of the team that built the North Dakota GIS Hub. I neither wrote the code nor installed the servers. I was simply a member of a larger team that together built something that continues to have an impact on North Dakota. I am a representative from the ND Department of Health — just one representative from seven different state agencies that met weekly for a very long time through (sometimes) agonizingly boring meetings hashing out what we wanted our ‘geospatial data clearinghouse’ to look like, and how it can best serve both the needs of state agencies as well as the public who wants geospatial data. Each agency representative provided core datasets; we tested access and usability. In the almost 20 years since the hub was built, we’ve improved upon a product that I think is still a model of collaboration and cooperation in state government. Most of us that were there in the beginning are still working as GIS coordinators for our agencies, still collaborating and trying to do the right thing with our geospatial data and state dollars.”

Ann closed with, “I think we have to remember that anything that has the preface ‘geo’ is by its very nature, interdisciplinary.  It’s good to work together, communicate and collaborate.” Her advice to new geoprofessionals is, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” and, “Say thank you.”

“Peter Whelan, my old professor at UMM, told me, when I came back to him after my parents first poo-pooed the idea of me becoming a geologist, ‘If you do something you love, eventually you’ll find a way to get paid for it.’  I find that has pretty much been true. If you set your priorities, find your passion, you’ll find a way to get paid for it. Be aware that your priorities may change during different stages of your career. Being flexible is also important.”

I asked Ann if she would share some of her favorite quotes with the readers, to which she responded, “Oh… there’s so many favorite quotes… I think of my Dad’s form of goodbye as we left the house to go to school, ‘Give it 110%!,’ or, as we complained about something, ‘Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.’ (Kind of appropriate as geographers? Maybe?) I now tell my kids that.  Or [one from] my old mentor, Peter Whelan, ‘If you don’t like the answer, ask a different question!,’ which ties in with Einstein’s quote, ‘As soon as you stop learning, you start dying.’”

Additional Resources

  • The new ND GIS Hub Portal, from where you can get official State of North Dakota data
  • Ann’s co-authored article about the Devils Lake Basin in North Dakota, which she described as ‘trial by blizzard’ for her first year in North Dakota


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