GIS: Geography is Sweet!

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Mackenzie and I work diligently on our topography maps.

On Thursday, we met with Tod Chee, a GIS specialist at the San Diego Zoo. When I walked into the room, I had no idea what a GIS specialist was, but I quickly found out through a challenging (but interesting) first-hand experience. GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems.  There are many different aspects of this job, including project planning, 3-D markups of terrain, and map topography. Basically, a GIS specialist spends most of his or her time making maps of the Zoo. In order to collect the elevation information, the Zoo owns an airplane equipped with LIDAR (light detection and ranging), which sends a laser to the ground and measures how long it takes for the reflected signal to return. This amazing technology has measured the elevation of all the land owned by the Zoo and the Wild Animal Park, which is very useful to GIS specialists.

Mr. Chee loves his job because he can be very creative when making maps, and he has a lot of freedom to do different projects.  He enjoys the advantage of knowing the Zoo much more than other employees. His job comes easily to him and he can make a graph that took us an hour in only ten minutes!  However, he must make sure to maintain all data in a cost effective manner as well as make sure the maps are readable so that users can understand what they are looking at. With his degree in Geography, there is a wide range of jobs related to GIS.  This includes urban planning, environmental management, and intelligence (working for the FBI or the military). This job might seem like it has nothing to do with animals, but in reality Mr. Chee has designed many animal exhibits including the giraffe exhibit, and he has the privilege to actually go inside a lot of exhibits when working; once he even got to feel a hippopotamus’s big soft tongue!

During our experience, we literally were able to live a day in the life of a GIS specialist.  We were handed a topography map and instructed to plot the elevation of a certain area of land on a graph.  There was a lot of math involved, and at first it was extremely overwhelming. Luckily, I eventually got the hang of it and was able to produce a pretty decent-looking map. Our goal was to figure out the proper height of a barrier that would prevent someone in the VIP parking area from seeing the planned eight-foot tall fence surrounding a new enclosure.  When I was finished, I determined that we would need to build a four-foot high barrier.  After we finished making our maps, we actually got the visit the area we were graphing and see the hills we had drawn.  We had been able to accurately depict the area without even having to leave the room!  Next time you go to the Zoo, look for the enclosure we helped design!

Natalie, Careers Team