and Alumni Spotlight
(posted May 6, 2021)
Pete Borum (SCATS 1996) graduated from Stanford University in 2006 with a BA in music, science, and technology. He is the executive director of Squint Labs, Inc., which works to combat misinformation and disinformation through technology and content. He is on Facebook as @pete.borum, Twitter as @peteborum, and Instagram as @pboknows.
Clayton Crocker (Super Saturdays 2001, VAMPY 2006) earned a BS in physics and a BA in mathematics from Denison University in 2013 and a PhD in physics from the University of Maryland in 2018. He writes, “I am a planner for the quantum engineering solutions group at Keysight Technologies, where we help accelerate the development of emerging quantum technologies.”
Ryan Gott (SCATS 2009, Gatton 2011-13) attended the University of Alabama in Huntsville where he received a BSE in aerospace engineering in 2016 and a PhD in aerospace systems engineering in 2020. His dissertation work was on plasma-based water purification. He is now a postdoctoral researcher for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, FL. He writes, “We use plasma for lots of fun things! We’re working on systems that will create water and oxygen on the moon, disinfect seeds and enhance space gardens, and reduce waste on future long-term missions to the moon and beyond. I will always be grateful for my time with The Center! It helped me explore things on a deeper level and expand my experiences in a powerful way.”
Yutong Gu (VAMPY 2012) earned two degrees from the University of Southern California, a BS in electrical engineering in 2019 and an MS in electrical engineering in 2020. He is a formware engineer at Zoox, Inc. an autonomous vehicle company working to launch a ride-hailing service.
Craig Jackson (VAMPY 1991-94; Travel 1993, 1994, 1996) earned a BS from Washington University in St. Louis with a major in psychology and a minor in philosophy. He worked in psychology/medical research at St. Louis Children’s Hospital before earning an MS in education and a JD, both from Indiana University. He was a litigator for a brief period and, he writes, “Since 2011, I’ve been very happily working at Indiana University on non-technical problems in the cybersecurity field, including a temporary faculty stint with the U.S. Navy. I’ve published a book with O’Reilly and recently led a Congressionally-funded large-scale cybersecurity assessment at the Port of Virginia. I took a long path to end up in national security work, but every part of it has added to what I do today. I’m married with two elementary-aged boys, and my wife is an educator. Those camps were life-changing for me.”
Merritt Johnson (SCATS 1994, VAMPY 1995-96) earned a BS in electrical engineering from WKU in 2004 and an MS in accounting from the University of South Alabama-Mobile in 2014. He was a naval officer from 2004-2009 and has worked as an accountant for a small group of court reporting companies since 2015. He is also a landlord with seven rental properties, mostly in south Mississippi. He writes, “I enjoyed camp very much. I met Jeffrey Eisenstein (SCATS 1994, VAMPY 1995-97) and Branen Salmon (SCATS 1993, VAMPY 1995) there, among many others. I learned so much — it was a great program and tons of fun. I look back on those memories fondly. Dr. Roberts and her husband were great leaders to us, and I remember them fondly as well.”
Maunik Patel (SCATS 2001) received a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 with a major in the biological basis of behavior and a minor in health care systems management. He received an MS in 2010 and an MD in 2014, both from the Georgetown University School of Medicine. After a fellowship in vascular and interventional radiology at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital, he took a position in 2020 as an interventional radiologist at the Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center in Washington, DC.
Langdon Shoop (SCATS 1989, Travel 1993) was the owner and operator of Frank Shoop Automotive from 2004 until 2019. In 2020, he joined the leadership team of Citizens Guaranty Bank, a community bank with branches in Irvine, Richmond, Berea, Stanton, and London. He is on Facebook as @Langdon Shoop and Twitter as @langdon9.
Hayden Teeter (VAMPY 2015-18) attends Harvard University as a member of the class of 2024. He plans to major in history or government. He writes, “I am in Air Force ROTC and play ultimate frisbee. This summer, I’m going to be a counselor for SCATS/VAMPY and am super excited! I hope to be an officer in the U.S. Air Force after I graduate. The summers I did VAMPY were the best of my life, and I made so many friends I still talk to on a daily basis. You can follow him in Instagram at @haydenteeter1.
Hayden with a friend from college.
Kathryn Wallace (VAMPY 2006-08) earned a BA in foreign language and international economics and in environmental sustainability studies from the University of Kentucky in 2014. She earned an MA in diplomacy and international commerce from the University of Kentucky in 2015 and is now working on an MS in yoga therapy from the Maryland University of Integrative Health. She is the senior advisor to the deputy assistant secretary for antidumping & countervailing duties in the U.S. Department of Commerce. She says, “VAMPY times were some of the best of my youth. They inspired me to be a confident, intelligent young person and provided me with a nourishing, supportive community.”
Aaron Williams (SCATS 2005; Travel 2006, 2007) received a BA in history and political science from Bellarmine University in 2013 and a JD from the University of Louisville in 2016. He is currently working as a civil defense attorney for Phillips Parker Orberson and Arnett in Louisville. He previously worked as a public defender.
Spotlight on: Gavi Begtrup
Gavi Begtrup (VAMPY 1996-97; Travel to Paris 1997; Travel to London 1997; TA 1999)grew up in Nashville, TN, and earned a BS in physics, math, and computer science from WKU in 2002 and a PhD in physics from the University of California at Berkeley in 2008. He served as a staff member to United States Representative Gabby Giffords of Arizona from 2009-12. He co-founded his first start-up, WaveTech, in 2013 and led his second, Eccrine Systems, in 2014. He is currently running for mayor of Cincinnati, OH, where he lives with his wife, Dr. Amber Begtrup, a clinical molecular geneticist at GeneDx, and their three children, who are 11, eight, and four. He spoke with us during the week of winter storms this February.
Let’s start with the present. Why are you running for mayor?
Running for office has been in the back of my mind for the last decade, ever since I worked in Congress. I spent three years as the policy advisor for Gabby Giffords. That time was both awesome and terrible: I saw the wonders of what Congress can do for our country — we passed the Affordable Care Act, we worked on climate change, and I wrote legislation that changed the future of human space flight and changed the military’s consumption of energy. I also saw the worst of American politics and political violence when my boss and mentor was shot, and my friend and coworker was killed[Note: Giffords and 19 others were shot during an assassination attempt in Arizona on January 8, 2011. Six people died, including Gavi’s friend and coworker Gabe Zimmerman. Gavi was not present.]
When Gabby retired, I left politics. I moved to Cincinnati and became involved in entrepreneurship. Running for office wasn’t on my radar. Then, a few months ago, a member of the Cincinnati city council and the frontrunner in the mayor's race became the third member of the council indicted by the FBI for accepting bribes. It became clear that we have a culture of corruption — we have a city government whose members are more interested in lining their pockets than in growing the city. Meanwhile, we have a city that's been stagnant for a long time — we have the same size population we had a hundred years ago. Cincinnati is an awesome place to live, yet we're not growing. We also have tremendous inequality: we have two of the greatest companies in the world, Procter & Gamble and Kroger, yet we also have food deserts and 45% child poverty.
No one running for mayor was talking about the future of the city, about how we're going to address this trend in inequality, about how we're going to correct 50 years of racist policies that have created neighborhoods that are still redlined and still cut off from opportunity. No one who was running had executive leadership experience, and none of them had kids in the public schools. I decided it was time for something different. It's been a weird path from physicist to policy advisor to entrepreneur to political candidate and, hopefully, mayor.
If you become mayor, how would you fix the system of corruption?
The fortunate thing for our city is that we have an opportunity to change because our mayor's race is open — our current mayor is term-limited — and there's only one incumbent on city council who is still eligible for reelection because everybody else is term-limited. But these things don't change overnight. When I worked for Gabby, she had one vote out of 435 in the House. Her vote was only so powerful. Her bigger power was the ability to convene people and to lead on issues, and that's really the power of a mayor in a city like Cincinnati, where the position isn’t that of a chief executive who runs everything. The power is to set a vision for people to get behind and then hire the city manager and set a culture for city hall.
The biggest things I learned building companies from the ground up as a CEO are that culture is critical, and culture is set at the top. Cincinnati needs a leader who says, “We're going to change the way these things work.” Policy plays a role, too, but the current corruption is a symptom of a government that's not functioning correctly. I've run organizations where there has been leadership and ownership at every level. You empower your people, you organize them around a vision and cultural values, and then you empower them to go make decisions. You get so much more out of people when they are empowered to drive things.
So, for example, with the city council, what we want is to get everybody subscribed to the vision of Cincinnati becoming the capital of the modern Midwest — becoming the Queen City again, a jewel of the region. That vision means we need to be growing, and we need to be growing inclusively so that every neighborhood is included — so wages go up and opportunity goes up. If you get everyone to say Cincinnati could be bigger and better over the next ten years, then you have your destination. And then you're just figuring out the route to take. We can disagree on policies along the way, but I want everybody on the council, whatever party they belong to, I want them all subscribed to that vision. And that strategy requires leadership, which is only learned only through experience, which has been sorely lacking in Cincinnati government.
As mayor, how would you improve the schools?
I would be the first directly elected mayor in Cincinnati history who has kids in public schools. As someone who is a product of public schools, who went to Western Kentucky University and the University of California, Berkeley, both public universities, I think that’s ridiculous. Whether you send your kids to public schools or not, whether you even have kids, public schools are critical to our economy, and they're critical to our neighborhoods. People move out of cities that don't have good schools, and that means the tax base is lowered and the schools are hurt more. If you want equitable development, schools are the avenues.
In Cincinnati, the mayor does not run the schools — there's a separate school board and superintendent. But what we've learned in this pandemic is that school doesn't end with the last bell. We need support structures for families, and the city runs those. The city runs the rec center, before and after school care, and all these other things that make it possible for a kid to grow up and have opportunity. I believe that the mayor's job first and foremost is to say schools matter, so how can we support them? How can we build collaboration between the city and the schools?
What experience do you have in working with schools?
I helped build a school here in Cincinnati called the Donald and Marian Spencer Center for Gifted and Exceptional Students. It’s a public magnet school for gifted kids named after Donald and Marian Spencer, who were civil rights icons in Cincinnati. Gifted education is a predominantly affluent white thing that exists in wealthier schools, so the school district placed this new school in the middle of the city, in Walnut Hills. It hired a principal, and I reached out to her andsaid, “Gifted education is something I'm passionate about,” and I got involved. I talked about it a lot with Dr. Roberts. I became the board chair of the school for the first three years of its existence. We grew from zero to 350 students, serving kids all over the district. It’s an integrated school that looks a lot more like Cincinnati than most schools. It's majority minority. It's one of the greatest things that I've been able to be a part of.
Your education was non-traditional. What was school like for you?
I never fit well in school. Schools are built around the middle, but I was way on one side of the curve, and I just didn't fit. I loved learning, but I hated listening to people tell me something I already knew and then tell it to me again, and again. I would butt heads with teachers. Every once in a while I had a teacher who was truly wonderful and got me, but the structure of traditional school didn't work for me. The schools tried — when I was in elementary school, I was put in the gifted program, and I skipped fifth grade. I went to seventh grade at a magnet school for math and science, and I was involved in things — I ran for student president. But school never gave me what I wanted. So, I dropped out in seventh grade and cobbled together a homeschooled existence. I started going to community college at age 11. There was a whole community of homeschoolers in Nashville, so I was in a school collective and finished everything for high school in the next two-and-a-half years. Then I went to Western at 14. I lived in Rodes Harlin Hall, which was the co-ed Honors dorm. And it was awesome.
What role did your family play in you being able to follow your own path?
The only reason it was possible was that my father, who was a psychiatrist, was forced to medically retire at an early age because he was no longer able to work. That put him in a position where he needed a good project — and I was a good project. He really drove my education. He's an autodidact who loves learning and loves knowledge and really shaped how I thought. It was great. I'm pretty self-driven, but he enabled all those things to happen. He's the one who found out about VAMPY and got me into that. I was also preceded by my siblings. My brother went to Simon's Rock College — now part of Bard College — which is an early-entrance school — at 15. My sister ended up graduating high school a year early. But this history wasn't on my mind at the time as a 14-year-old: I was just ready to leave home and go to college.
What stands out to you from your experiences with The Center?
All of it! My first year I took Math and did Algebra Two. I learned the entire curriculum in three weeks, which was awesome because I was being homeschooled, so that meant I got to move forward. The next year, I did Creative Writing. Bruce Kessler was my Math teacher at VAMPY, and then when I went to WKU, I was a double major in math and physics, and Bruce was then my professor. I spent a lot of time with him, and I've kept up with him over the years — I just talked to him a few weeks ago. VAMPY was twenty years ago, and I still keep up with people.
I also remember it being a lot of fun. Obviously there were the classes, but VAMPY is also where I discovered a love for Ultimate Frisbee and where I started playing card games. We would play Hearts and Spades and things like that. I had done traditional summer camps and enjoyed them, but at VAMPY, it was so fun to be surrounded by people who had something in common with me and were something like me. It was unusual for me. VAMPY is also the reason I went to WKU.
The other thing is the travel. I still have fond memories of both trips. My wife and I went to Paris and Bordeaux in 2016, and I recognized sites like Napoleon’s Tomb. It was amazing to be able to see the world and have that level of independence and high expectation for maturity. Everyone else had told kids like me that we were immature because we couldn’t pay attention in class or made inappropriate jokes or whatever, but then we had Dr. Roberts who said, “I believe you're mature enough to handle being in a hotel 10,000 miles from home and away from immediate adult supervision.” If you let people be responsible, and you set an expectation that you believe they can do this and you’re going to support them no matter how it turns out, you'll get great things out of them. And that goes for 14-year-old kids, too. At the time I just thought, “Oh, sweet. I'm in a hotel room. And they believe in me — they believe that I'm going to be good and that I'm mature.” And it worked.
How has the pandemic been with three young kids?
One reason why I make the point that I’m the only one in the mayor’s race who has kids in school is that the uncertainty during the pandemic has been really hard for young families. For example, my third grader’s school was remote at first, but then they went in two days a week, then it was remote again, then it was back to two days a week, and now it's snowing and so she can't go to school — but instead of having a snow day, her school is having a remote day,. That just doesn't work at all. I kept making the point to the school board that what families need is consistency. I said whatever you do, pick a system and stick with it, because changing is hard. If families figure out how to get work done and take care of their kids, and then you change it to some other system and they have to work out something new, and then three weeks later you can change it again, that's terrible.
I learned in Congress that what people hate more than a policy they disagree with is inconsistency in a policy. I made that point as a businessman too. Republican staff or friends would tell me that businesses hate regulation, but I said, “No, businesses don't mind regulation. They might not like a regulation, but what they really hate is uncertainty in regulation where everything changes every year or every three months.” It’s the same with families: we may not like being remote or being blended or whatever else, but stick with that system so that we know what to expect.
You tend to take on challenging projects that come with a lot of risk. How did you develop a mindset of being okay with aiming big, even if not everything works out the way you want it to?
I don't spend a lot of time thinking about failure because failure will take care of itself. In grad school, you fail constantly. When you're doing research, particularly in a science PhD program, most things will fail. Most experiments do not give you useful outcomes. And so I spent six years in grad school working a hundred hours a week doing research, and almost everything I did failed. You only get a PhD for discovering something that nobody in the world knows yet. When you're out on the edge, out in the wilderness exploring, you have to accept that you’re going to be poking around blind a lot, and you can call that failure, but what you're looking for is that one gem that will let you expand the realm of human knowledge. There is a moment in scientific discovery where you’ve figured out something and realize you are the one person in the world who understands it. And then you get to do something even cooler, which is to share it with the world. So I never thought in terms of success and failure; I just realized that you have to keep going until you find something that works.
In Congress, it was the same way. Thousands and thousands of pieces of legislation get introduced, and most of them have no chance of success. Things take forever — I mentioned the Affordable Care Act earlier: Representative John Dingell had been introducing a healthcare reform bill for 50 years before it happened. We tend to tell stories of successful people as if they did this successful thing, then they did another successful thing, and now they're billionaires. It's a lie — it's a disservice to society and to young people because that will not be their experience; they will fail over and over and over again, but if they give up, they'll never do anything great. If you don't keep pushing, you can't change the world.
I didn't have words for it when I was young, but I always saw a world that I thought could be better. I’d say, “Those traffic lights aren’t timed well.” I'd see lines at grocery store registers and say, “Why don't we have one line that feeds into all of them? I thought about efficiency and optimization a lot. My interest in research was to try to expand human knowledge. It's also why I went to Congress. I felt that doing research didn’t improve people's lives enough, so I did the exact opposite: I went from individual atoms to billion-dollar budgets. I had a tangible impact on policies that changed our country, even if my impact was a tiny little piece on a big policy.
When I started companies, I only wanted to work on things that could make a difference. My first company was an agricultural materials company, trying to improve greenhouses and cover crops because we continue — a hundred years after the green revolution — to have a challenge making sure that we have enough food and affordable food to feed people. My second company was a medical device company trying to improve diagnostics so that we could have better real-time health information without drawing blood. You can look at those companies and say, “Well, you failed; at the end of the day, your companies didn't succeed.” That’s true: we didn't have the financial outcome we wanted. With Eccrine Systems, the pandemic had a big impact — but we created a new field of medical diagnostics, had over 70 patents, and led the world in research and development. It is still my hope that in the future, somebody will make this concept profitable.
I'd rather try to do big things, fail 50 times, and then make a difference on the 51st than to never try to make a difference. People ask me why I'm running for mayor because I’m running against people with big names and the odds seem long. They ask, “Why do you want to go into politics? You don't get paid well. You get beat up by everybody. People will say terrible things about you that aren't true.” The answer is that I think I can make a difference.
To learn more about Gavi’s candidacy, go to votegavi.com.
Spotlight on: Cat Gallagher
Cat and king penguins at Volunteer Point.
Originally from Louisville, Cat Gallagher (SCATS 2007, Travel to Paris 2009, Travel to London 2010) earned a BA from Fordham University in 2017 with a major in computer science and minors in French and philosophy. In fall 2020, she moved to the Falkland Islands for six months to work for the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI), which conducts research in the natural and physical sciences in the South Atlantic from the tropics down to the ice in Antarctica.
Tell me about the work that you are currently doing.
My official job title is GIS officer — GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems. I provide mapping support for a lot of the different projects that are going on. I’m also the IMS-GIS (Information Management System and Geographic Information System) Data Centremanager: I manage the repository of all the data that's been collected during research in the Falklands.
Prior to 2013, researchers would come here, they would do research, and then they would depart without leaving a record of it. There was no chance for collaboration. Then the data center was formed to start keeping better records and keep track of the metadata, and that eventually evolved into the current data portal (dataportal.saeri.org). My job is to maintain it and to track down the people who did research in 2020 and upload their data, because there was nobody in my role for a year. I'm also building a data portal for St. Helena, which is another UK overseas territory in the South Atlantic.
I'm working on a ton of different projects right now. I am building a web GIS project for an ongoing project studying the wetlands in the Falklands. I'm updating another project mapping all the data for a marine management area — we have a lot of fisheries around the Falklands, so this project keeps track of the impact of fishing and other human activities on marine biodiversity. I'm also making maps for the Department of Agriculture because it’s trying to get farms certified to the Responsible Wool Standard, which will allow them to fetch a premium for the wool that they sell.
Why is the Falklands such a great place to do research?
It's unlike anywhere in the world. Researchers can have a base in Stanley, which is like living in a little village in the UK. But then you step right outside of the town, and there's untouched wilderness everywhere. If I drove 15 minutes from where I'm sitting now, I could get to four different penguin colonies. It's mind-blowing! I’ll go on a walk and see Commerson's dolphins playing around. The other day there was a sea lion hanging out.
There are a bunch of different islands, too. East Falkland and West Falkland are the two big ones, and there are also little ones that you can zip to on six-passenger planes. We have researchers who left today to do marine surveys on one of the little islands: they’re going to be scuba diving and surveying the seabed. It's such a rich area, and there's so much to study because it's a unique ecosystem. Once, I went out to see a king penguin colony that was on a working sheep farm, so there were penguins and sheep crossing paths.
What is a typical day like for you?
Most of my day is spent at the office working on different projects on my computer and going to meetings. One cool thing is that everybody goes home for lunch because we live two minutes away from work. And then after work, the main thing we do here is go for walks — they're not quite hikes, but they're more intense than a walk because you're usually trudging through tussock grass, which can be ten feet tall, and you’re not on a foot path — you might be following an off-roading track that a car has made. I go out to places like Surf Bay and Yorke Bay to see penguins and then come home and make dinner. Internet is limited, so we do a lot of downloading when we have free internet from midnight to 6:00 AM and then watch it later. The Falklands has been able to keep COVID under control, so on the weekends I can go out — I did pub trivia last night, and we won, which was awesome. I won ten pounds!
Tell me about your penguin encounters so far.
You can see the penguins everywhere. I’ll be walking along and one will end up in the path, and I’ll wait and be like, “After you,” and the penguin will look at me and be like, “After you,” and I’ll be like, “Well, one of us has to do something here!”
Also, the tourism industry relies on cruise ships, and during the pandemic there have been no cruise ships stopping here, so the government decided to give every person who's a resident — which includes me, even though I'm a contractor — 500 pounds to spend at tourism-related businesses. The most highly sought-after trip is to go to is Sea Lion Island, which is a remote island that’s only inhabited during the summer. The only thing on this island is the lodge. I went there in December using my TRIP (Tourism Recovery Incentive Programme) scheme money, and it was the coolest place I've ever been in my entire life.
I fell asleep to the sounds of penguins because there was a colony of gentry penguins outside the door of my hotel room. The noise they make is like a rubber chicken deflating, like a “Oooghh.” So imagine a thousand of those “oooghhs” — that's what I fell asleep too. Then I walked along the beach, and there were elephant seals everywhere. There was a colony of rockhopper penguins as well. On the way, looking down from a cliff, I could see sea lions. I had seen California sea lions in zoos, but those are so small compared to these! These sea lions were males, and they looked like lions and roared like lions.
Cat finds a juvenile elephant seal in tussock grass on Sea Lion Island.
Then I had my lunch next to the rockhopper colony. Penguins don't have land predators, so depending on the penguin, they're not super wary of people. They just ignore us. Some types are a little nervous, but the Rockhoppers just bopped along past me while I ate my sandwich.
The island has another bird called a striated caracara. They are giant birds of prey, and they are smart. As I was eating my sandwich, they were like, “She's going to drop something.” So they stood six feet away from me and waited, and when I dropped a piece of cheese by accident, one of them swooped in and grabbed it. And then this big, scary bird just looked at me. On my way back, I wandered too close to a caracara nest. I realized I had done something wrong because two of them ran down toward me — they didn't fly, which was also disconcerting. They stared at me. I didn't know what direction to move in because I didn’t know where the nest was, so I picked a direction and started walking. I picked wrong because the caracara divebombed me and kicked me in the head. Then I picked wrong again, so it divebombed my backpack. Eventually I was able to walk away, and they were like, “Yeah, that's right. Move on!”
What do you remember about your experiences at SCATS and travelling with The Center, and how have they influenced you?
SCATS was super fun. I had a great time and learned a lot, and it was nice to be around other people who wanted to spend their summers learning. I also really enjoyed the trips. Dr. Julia runs a tight ship — she had our schedule jampacked. We saw everything we could possibly see in those weeks. That's the kind of trip I love — “Since we flew all this way, let's see everything!”
In general, traveling with The Center made moving to the Falklands less scary. I probably wouldn't have come here it if I hadn't had the opportunity to travel before. I learned that new places are exciting, and it's cool to get to know people who are different from you. The trip to London has especially come in handy because I'm surrounded by people from the UK here.
How did you develop the skills and interests that led you to doing this work?
I majored in computer science at Fordham University, in the Bronx. What I like about computer science is problem-solving, but I realized in my senior year that the idea of following the usual trajectory of working at a tech company left me feeling empty. This happened in November of 2016, and the feeling coincided with a realization that climate change is not going to get fixed by itself — we have to do something. So I did some soul searching and thought, “What I would really love to do is work with animals and work on addressing climate change. How can I do that?” I spent a month Googling, looking up combinations like “computer science and animals” and “software engineering and wildlife.” Eventually I stumbled upon GIS. After I graduated, I took GIS classes and worked at Prospect Park Zoo for a year. It was so much fun — I did birthday parties, I handled chickens and lizards and snakes, and I showed animals to kids.
Then I realized I didn’t want to live in New York City anymore — it was too cold. It hit me that I could move to Austin: I had a friend getting her PhD in chemistry at University of Texas (UT), I had a degree in computer science so I could probably get a job, and I liked queso! I moved to Austin sight-unseen — I'd never been to Texas before I arrived there with my dog, Ally, and everything I owned. I got a job working at ForeFlight, which is an aviation app that pilots use in the cockpit. I worked with the maps, importing them from the FAA and processing them into a format the app could handle. It was great work, and I made good money, but I still felt empty. I still felt that pull to work with the environment.
So I was working from home, somewhat miserable, and then I got an email from a listserv from theSociety of Conservation GIS. I had always meant to unsubscribe because I never opened any of the emails, but I hadn’t. As fate would have it, that email was about the job with SAERI. My dad and I had gone on a cruise in 2016 and stopped at the Falkland Islands for a day, so when I saw the job listing, I thought, “I've been there. It was cool — we saw penguins.” I decided to apply, I got the job, and I arrived here in November. And as of yesterday, I am planning to start a master's in geography at UT in the fall.
What are you hoping to work on in graduate school?
I would love to work with endangered species and habitat mapping — biodiversity-type conservation work. I would love to be able to do some fieldwork where I get to work with animals. I am so jealous of my boss — he just got back from doing a seal census where he went to all the different islands and anesthetized seals so he could tag them and do a census. I was reading his research permit, and I thought, “Who gets to do that? That's so cool!”
You have taken some big leaps in your life, both in terms of moving around a lot and in your career decisions. What has helped you to be brave enough to make some of these big moves?
The reason I've been able to do all these jumps is that I had a support network. My dad's been so supportive. He’s from New Jersey, so when I moved to New York, I had family in New Jersey 45 minutes away. When I moved to Austin, I already had a friend there, and my sister came to help me move. And then moving here, I had already been here once, and I knew I was only coming for six months, and my friends’ parents were able to take my dog while I was gone. So yes, I was brave and all that, but it's because I have people to help me.
I think I also lucked into a good path with my career because what I'm finding is a lot of people in environmental science have their expertise in the physical sciences like biology or chemistry. Then they discover that it would be great to know how to code, so they have to pick up coding as they go along, whereas I'm going the opposite direction.
Often, young people feel they have to follow a single trajectory without realizing you can actually shake things up.
Exactly. I had always thought you have to go to college and major in something you’re good at. I was good at computer science, and I liked it. Then, when the end of college was looming, I realized, “There's no structure anymore. I can do whatever I want.” And it was terrifying. I’d never thought about what happens next, and then those doors opened up, and I thought, “Oh no, I have to figure something out.”
An interesting fact is that there are more women in every field STEM field now than they were in 1980 except for computer science. I didn’t love being the only woman in some classes — it was definitely harder. I had to seek out the other women or the guys who I became friends with. I think that that has played a role as well in why I've moved away from a pure tech career. At my job in Austin, when I got hired, I was the only woman, and by the time I left, there was one more. The job I have now has much more of a balance, and I like that better.
But I have always had a mix of interests. I have always liked the sciences, but in school I also did theater and speech and debate team. I've always wanted to do both. Geography and GIS are ways for me to use my coding skills to tell a story, which is something I really, really enjoy.
Is there anything else you're hoping to get to do during the time you have left in the Falklands?
I'd like to explore more of the islands. I haven't seen an albatross yet! I know that when I go back, things will not be back to normal from the pandemic, so I'm soaking up the experience of being able to just go over to a friend's house or go out to a bar or a movie theater. One of the first things I did here was go to the movie theater here and eat popcorn — I want to watch as many movies in the movie theater as I can while I'm here because I don't know when I will get to do that again when I get back to the U.S. And I want to just explore — there’s people who've lived here for 20 years who still haven't seen it all.
Cat with king penguins at Volunteer Point.
Past interviews can be found in our Alumni Spotlight Archive.