GeoInspirations: Stacey Stark, Touching the Future

May 15, 2019
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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 Stacey Stark, instructor of GIS and geography, and director of the Geospatial Analysis Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota, U.S.

I have had the very great pleasure of getting to know thousands of wonderful educators over my career. One of my favorites is Stacey Stark. I think after reading this column, you will be as inspired as I have been with all of her accomplishments but, also, with how she remains focused on the accomplishments of those she mentors. I have met many of her students over the years and it is clear that their academic pathway and subsequent career have been positively influenced by interacting with Stacey.

Describe her current position and background. “My position is the director of the Geospatial Analysis Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The GAC provides GIS support and expertise in classrooms and research projects in all five of UMD's colleges and many non academic programs. Our workshops and faculty consultations aim to expand the use of spatial analysis, and our services include everything from writing a proposal to data analysis. My job is to keep all this running and funded. In addition to UMD research and teaching, we have a significant number of external projects that keep our salaries stable and provide valuable work opportunities for undergraduate students,” she replied.

“GAC serves as a technical resource center for Hazard Mitigation Planning in the State of Minnesota. Many of our external projects involve working with counties to update their Hazard Mitigation Plans. These plans include a lot of spatial analysis and mapping for natural hazards such as flooding, tornadoes and wind events as well as identifying vulnerable populations and public assets.”

What convinced her to enter this field? She replied, “I started out my career in water resources management — because of my love for wilderness and river travel — and learned about GIS in 1993 at the [U.S.] Forest Service when I was offered a volunteer position to help foresters complete timber sale maps on a green screen with 0s and 1s. Even this simplistic method of digitally mapping our forests intrigued me. While I continued my education in water resources, I took all the GIS classes I could while pursuing a Master of Science in Watershed Science. It was the application of GIS to river conservation and watershed management that made me realize I had connected the skills and subjects I love.

“After working at an EPA research lab as a GIS specialist for several years, I took a risk to expand my experience in a job in the UMD geography department managing a GIS lab and pursuing GIS projects. By building new collaborations one at a time, I learned that I actually love being a ‘generalist’ and applying my skills and experience in different fields all the time. I love that my job is never the same year after year. My ‘lab’ grew from one staff person to four plus students and now supports the entire campus community. There have been so many rewarding collaborations that we are fortunate to be a part of: GIS projects with economists, pharmacists, planners, farmers, ecologists, soil scientists, K12 educators, anthropologists, emergency managers, electricians, journalists, and student life administration to name some! What other field could you be in and work on meaningful research projects with all these professionals?” (Author’s note: Indeed!)

Who or what most inspired her during her career? “One thing that has been very important and inspiring to me in my career is being a part of GIS user groups, committees and the MN GIS/LIS Consortium (our state professional GIS association, MN GIS/LIS in short). For many years, I was the sole GIS specialist in my department, so making other connections was critical to my professional development. I’ve served on the executive board of the MN GIS/LIS and in leadership roles several times now, and I am always learning from my GIS professional peers in different sectors. I have been so inspired by the dedication and professionalism of GIS leaders in Minnesota as well as the spirit of collaboration across sectors.

“I am compelled to introduce the students who I work with to the great MN GIS professional community as well, and they know how much I value it. I strongly encourage the students who work with me to participate in the MN Student Scholarship Competition and mentoring program in Minnesota, as well as to apply for student scholarships to conferences anywhere they can. Now that I have been working with undergraduate students for over a decade, it is my former students who inspire me. About three-quarters of my former GIS student employees have stayed in the Minnesota GIS community. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing my former students take leadership roles in GIS positions and continue to engage in the GIS community by presenting, teaching, hosting user groups, GeoMentoring, and attending networking events for college students. One of my students was invited to the Esri stage with me at the Esri 2015 Education Summit, and another won an Esri award with her innovative story map portfolio in 2018.”

What project or initiative of which she is most proud? She replied, “Professional engagement in a fast-moving field such as the geospatial industry is critical for all of us. However, as an introvert, I especially believe in one-on-one connections, which sometimes don’t happen readily in the professional world without a third-party matchmaker or introduction. I love to be a connector, so I started a Young Professionals Mentor Program at the annual MN GIS/LIS Conference ten years ago for students or those just entering the field. It is still going strong with about 17 mentor pairs at each conference. I’m very proud of this program and to be part of a community where so many talented professionals are willing to talk with students or those just entering the field. I get many positive comments from the GIS professionals, many of whom sign up year after year.

“I was so honored last fall to receive the MN GIS/LIS Polaris Award for contributions to the Minnesota GIS community, particularly my role coordinating the Young Professionals Mentor Program and the Annual MN GIS/LIS Student Scholarship Competition. This year I started matching GIS professionals with K-12 educators at the annual MN Educator Day (sponsored by MN GIS/LIS) to jumpstart more GeoMentoring pairs. Largely due to our active GIS professional organization, GeoMentoring and GIS in K-12 schools has taken off in Minnesota.”

What is the most important thing on which Stacey thinks we need to work as the geography/education/science/geospatial community? “My experience is that most great GIS professionals are very good at collaborating. Often it is the GIS person in a project that brings a team together and has working relationships with multiple parties. The importance of communication cannot be understated. On one hand, it seems as though we work with non-GIS users all the time, but on the other hand it still seems like so many people (educators, leaders, data analysts) in all sort of fields still need an introduction to the power of spatial analysis and what it is! We need to keep telling people what we do with maps and spatial data, and tell the stories about how a map or analysis was the lightbulb that [insert story here: changed someone’s mind, got the project funded, made the planning better, or saved a life!].”

What is Stacey’s advice to a new professional in these fields? “Of course, my first bit of advice will be to get engaged with your local or regional GIS community. No matter where you are in your career, your involvement is valuable. And when you are not surrounded by your GIS peers, you should be sharing what GIS can do. In many fields the GIS expert may be cast in a support role. But remember, you have expertise using tools to help others see things in a different way which may give a project new direction or more meaning. So speak up and integrate your geospatial skills into your work portfolio, your hobby or your side job to demonstrate what you can do!”

Stacey's favorite quote is: 

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” —Mary Oliver

See the Geospatial Analysis Center's website for more information about Stacy’s work and the center’s projects.

Learn more about the MN GIS/LIS Consortium and its programs here

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