Imaging the World: GIS at Stanford University

In honor of Geography Awareness Week and GIS Day, has interviewed Geographic Information Systems (GIS) instructors at universities across the country. Read on to hear from Patricia Carbajales, Geospatial Manager at the Branner Earth Sciences Library at Stanford University.

By Megan Driscoll

Patricia Carbajales What's your background in GIS, and what brought you to teach the subject at Stanford?

Patricia Carbajales: I have several certificates in GIS applied to environmental science, a Masters Degree in GIS from the University of Redlands and over seven years of experience working in the field of GIS.

I started working at Stanford earlier this year, and from the moment I saw the job announcement I knew this was my dream job. Helping students, faculty and staff from any discipline in any aspect of GIS is very rewarding and challenging work. What is your primary field of research and education, and how do you typically integrate GIS into your courses?

PC: Our GIS facility is located in the Branner Earth Sciences Library & Map Collections, part of the School of Earth Sciences. However, my position was expressly designed to serve the needs of all of the students and faculty at the university. I provide in-depth support to the digital humanities, civil and environmental engineering, urban planning, political sciences and other departments at Stanford. Due to the nature of my position, I find myself having more than one primary field of research. It is fascinating to see the possibilities that GIS opens to research and investigation in new fields every day. We offer GIS workshops in order to help faculty incorporate GIS technology into their courses, allowing them to focus on the discipline they are teaching. We want students to be familiar with the program so the professor can focus on its applications instead of the program itself.

We also want researchers and students to be aware of the latest trends in GIS, so they keep it in mind as another advanced tool available to them that can offer added value to their research or projects. What's your personal philosophy regarding GIS and GIS education?

PC: I love using GIS technology. However, in the way that it is applied at Stanford, I see it used as a tool for other disciplines, not a discipline on its own. For example, you can delineate drainage areas in GIS very easily, but without knowing how and why you got the results and what they mean, your delineations might have no value. You need grounding in hydrologic theory behind it to make your results scientifically valid. Are you involved with the Stanford Library's GIS Center? How do you envision the role the GIS Center plays in educating both university students and the community at large?

PC: Yes. I am currently the Geospatial Manager at Branner Earth Sciences Library & Map Collections. Our facility is designed to help our entire community in the use and learning environment of geospatial technology. We offer several free workshops every month to our patrons where we teach them the basics of GIS. Because we know it is an overwhelming technology and sometimes not very user-friendly, we have our team working with first-time users during their initiation into the world of geospatial technology.

We also offer consultation, so students or faculty can make one-on-one appointments with us and we will help them with any aspect of GIS, from data research to advanced spatial analysis. Do you have many students who are interested in pursuing GIS in their careers? What types of careers are available for students who specialize in the field?

PC: Since we don't have a geography department or a GIS certification program at Stanford, I don't see a lot of students interested in pursuing GIS in their careers specifically. However, I see more and more students applying GIS technology in their disciplines, whether it is traditional disciplines that have been using GIS heavily in the last few decades, such as biology, geology, anthropology and civil engineering, or disciplines that recently have 'exploded' in the use of GIS such as medicine, economics, history, political sciences and urban studies. What do you think is the most interesting or exciting thing about GIS right now?

PC: I'm excited to see the new ways in which GIS is revolutionizing the way certain disciplines are undertaking research and analyzing spatial data, such as in the Spatial History Lab here at Stanford.

I am also amazed by the use of social media and networks combined with the power of GIS technology. Thanks to the World Bank and other initiatives, I was able to identify which houses were destroyed during the recent earthquake in Haiti and this information (combined with hundreds of other volunteers) was sent to the emergency teams on the ground while I was working on my laptop at home. Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share any information you'd like about your work in GIS and your instruction at Stanford University.

PC: We are celebrating GIS Day on November 17th during Geography Awareness Week. Please come by and see what faculty and students have been doing with GIS and also interact with many of the GIS professionals in our community. The details of this event will be posted on the Stanford Library website.

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