Graduate School of Geography
Professor John Rogan discusses opportunities for undergraduate research participation in the HERO (The Human-Environment Regional Observatory) program.
What prompted you to choose geography as your field of study?
When I was an undergrad in the geosciences department at the University of Arizona in Tucson, I took an introduction to remote sensing course that was cross-listed with the geography department. Although I knew nothing about the remote sensing at the time, I enjoyed it more than my other classes. I got to know the professor and went on to work with him on a project using remote sensing to study arid lands in Malawi in Africa. Before I knew it, I was being drawn into the geography suite. I transferred into geography and kept a minor in geology. From there I went on to do an M.A. in geography, studying wildfires and wildfire analysis.
Geography, like remote sensing, has allowed me to explore new topics and get involved in cross-disciplinary work, from human-environment research to physical geography to technical work with geographic information systems and remote sensing. I developed a lot of diverse interests and didn't feel any guilt about it! As an academic you sometimes feel you should be focused on just one thing, and I see that mistaken assumption today in many of the undergraduates I mentor. The breadth of the discipline is the beauty and attractiveness of geography I think.
You mention that a course in remote sensing really caught your interest. What is remote sensing?
In geography, remote sensing is used both a form of data collection and a way of knowing. It uses sensors, mounted on satellites or airplanes, which are designed to detect and measure energy given off by or reflected from objects on the earth's surface. Different objects on the earth's surface are characterized by different energy patterns.
Could you talk about the HERO program, which offers research opportunities for undergraduates to work along side graduate students and faculty?
Something I've been involved in since my first semester here is the HERO program—the Human Environment Research Observatory—which is a program that brings in select undergrads to work with faculty like myself, Colin Polsky and Gil Pontius. We work closely with students to develop research based in and around Massachusetts on diverse topics, from vulnerability to drought as Colin Polsky does, to urban remote sensing and mapping of lawns and suburbanization, to things that I do, forest species mapping and forest change in Massachusetts. You have students at even the junior level who are working with faculty on a one-on-one basis, exchanging emails and getting personal attention. That's during the semester. Then over the summer there's a research internship focus where we do field trips, collect data and process imagery. It's a very nice way for students to take what they've learned in classes and apply them in situations where they're responsible for something that's new knowledge creation in the real sense of research.
The proof of the pudding with HERO is the success of it. Professional development is key; it's a big part of research, professional development, knowing what to say and how much to say and how to say it and presentation of work. A lot of the HERO students have presented and won awards for the quality of their work at the Annual Association of American Geographers conferences, so they get to travel to these conferences. Many of them have presented their work alongside Ph.D. students, and some even alongside professors from different universities. That's the highest level of research that I know of, the highest level that I've attempted to achieve is to develop a concept, address it, perform the research, and then present the results to my peers, graduate students, and fellow faculty from other universities.
Many students who are post-HERO often write to me to ask for letters of recommendation for some award that they're applying for. I'm able to speak with tremendous authority and knowledge about these individuals, which is what the people presenting the awards want.
Clark's geography departments offers programs for graduate students as well as undergraduates. Do you think that's an advantage for undergraduates?
That's a great question. I teach only one class that's purely undergraduate; the rest have Ph.D. and master's degree students from a variety of departments.
I think that undergrads benefit a lot hearing from people who have different experiences, but also who are more knowledgeable-they've been through an undergraduate degree. Undergrads are able to see what they could be like, all in an environment where people are respectful and are able to learn from each other. I think on the whole it's all a very positive thing.
Sometimes undergrads can feel intimidated by being in classes with grad students, but if you're in college and you're not intimidated, you're probably not in the right place! When I took that remote sensing class in Arizona, every word or phrase I heard from the instructor was completely new to me. I had no background, nothing to go on, nothing from previous courses that would have helped me. I learned as I went. It was a really great experience and I flourished. That's where true growth occurs. I think it's a good breeding ground for knowledge and creation and learning.
Just as I do well with senior faculty here who know a lot more than me and are very experienced, so too does an undergraduate who is in a same course as a student at a master's or a Ph.D. level. I've never once heard a complaint about classes by the undergrads being mixed.
I understand you direct the accelerated B.A./Master's degree program in geographic information science. Could you talk about that program?
The accelerated B.A./Master's degree program in geographic information science is part of Clark's accelerated-degree option that encourages qualified undergraduate students to gain an M.A. in one year after the B.A. The students who come into the geographic information science program are those who do well in classes on geographic information systems, spatial analysis, quantitative methods, remote sensing, etc. These students finish their B.A. in May and then do an internship over the summer. (They don't have to be present on campus for that.) When fall classes start, they come in as first-year M.A. students. The program on average has run from summer to summer for each student. By starting in May of one year and finishing in August of the next they have enough time to develop and complete a research project. Each student chooses a couple of faculty to work with from various departments, from biology to international development to geography. Topics range from transportation to geographic information systems to tropical deforestation to gypsy moth infestation.
Many students have taken the M.A. as a terminal degree, whereas others have gone on to a Ph.D. We accept students with diverse interests and diverse future plans, even if they're being developed in flight through the M.A. program.
I was giving a phone recommendation for a student applying to the USDA, and this individual was the second person who was being interviewed. I felt awkward that two people from our program were applying for the same job. I said I had no hesitation recommending both of them, and he said "that's okay then, we're hiring both." He diversified the position because the quality of the students was so high. And he said 'you're doing a great job there with those students,' and that's all you want to hear. We have a track record now--how best to get students through the program and we have a network of potential employers.