My journey in GIS started 10 years ago when I needed to decide on a college major. Growing up, I had a passion for learning about the environment and Earth. Therefore, I decided to major in Earth Science during my undergraduate year of studies. Later on, I entered a water resources and hydrogeology program in our department because I was particularly interested in interactions between soils, water and climate.
To me, the most fascinating part of my undergraduate studies were the diverse field trips and mapping activities I conducted over the summers. This marked my first experience with geospatial information and GIS techniques. With the help of GIS applications, I was amazed that I had a much clearer understanding of current and historical geology and topography.
After my receiving my bachelor’s degree, I entered Penn State University’s Ph.D. program in soil science and agronomy to continue pursuing my professional interests. At Penn State, I for the first time received systematic trainings on GIS, ranging from commercial software like ESRI products to geospatial analysis in R or Python. More importantly, I applied GIS every day to conduct my thesis research projects. Without GIS, it is impossible to test the role of precision/digital agriculture in water quality improvement or to connect field-scale farming practice to watershed-scale impacts. I really enjoyed working with geospatial data, maps and coding scripts every day.
Since graduating with my Ph.D. in soil science, I have been working as a GIS and data scientist with PlantVillage at Penn State. We, PlantVillage, are a large group of computer engineers, web developers, data scientists, biologists, agronomist, meteorologists and extension specialists who share a common goal: to help smallholder farmers all over the world achieve food security. My work ranges from international agronomic research with remote sensing to delivering hyper-localized (5km resolution) weather and agronomic advice to over 400,000 farmers in Kenya on a weekly basis via SMS. I am coordinating with teams in Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, and Ethiopia to apply machine learning and GIS techniques to combat with irregular rainfall patterns, low-fertility soils, pest threats, and to deliver hyperlocal advice to individual farmers via SMS, TV and PlantVillage Nuru application notifications.
Working together with my amazing team, our goals are to reach millions of individual farmers across Africa with our hyperlocal advice on rainfall, crop management and pest control; utilize most advancing AI techniques to deliver most understandable and accessible help to those in need; and reduce the dependence of smallholdings on external help to achieve food security.
Looking back at my 10 years of GIS experience, I have massively grown professionally and personally. Professionally, I feel fortunate that I found a career where I can receive a great sense of achievement every day. Gladly, my GIS skills are improving constantly. Beyond that, I am more thrilled to see that I am using my skills to help people from different regions on different problems — from excessive nutrients from cropland in Pennsylvania, impaired stream quality by livestock in Northern Ireland to climate adaption and pest control in East Africa and South Asia. To me, GIS is the component that brings many fields together to solve complex real-world problems.
Personally, I gradually built up my self-confidence by overcoming many challenges along the way. I have to admit that I was challenged a lot of times in the past years, and it was anything but an easy career path for me. I was questioned many times that my work was only ‘computer games’ or ‘mapping practices’ which had no practical applications or scientific indications. It made me frustrated and question my abilities. Still, I worked very hard to think outside the box from a user’s perspective and to make my products informative and applicable for the people who will use them eventually.
I am very lucky that I have finally found a place where I belong and have so many wonderful mentors in my professional development, such as Drs. Heather Preisendanz, Patrick Drohan and David Hughes. They and my other team members offered me constant support and constructive suggestions to help me advance in my career. This also inspires me to give others support and advice when they need.
From the start of my education, I have always been a gender minority in my professional settings. Sometimes, the gender ratio of male to female can be as high as 5 to 1 or higher. Nevertheless, every female coworker and advisor I met was incredibly decisive, capable and supportive. Working side-by-side with them, I felt energized and motived.
Our team at PlantVillage tried very hard to recruit undergraduate assistants and volunteers from all majors to work on various GIS and computer science projects. We gladly found that more than half of the undergraduates at PlantVillage were women, and they did a fantastic job.I don’t believe that GIS is a male-dominated industry because women have some disadvantage in this aspect compared to men. I believe we simply need to do a better job at educating young women about GIS industries, including potential career paths, applications and requirements. Then we will quickly see how our industry grows and evolves for the better.