First Groovy Job

Isabel McLoughlin

Isabel McLoughlin, Geographer

Isabel McLoughin is a geographer and Geographic Information Systems expert who makes maps to answer a wide variety of questions: Where should we put this vineyard? What is the object we see on this map? Are those miners engaged in illegal activities? What types of programs would most help those people living in sparsely populated Mali?

Isabel combines her skills in mapping and research with her deep interest in people and cultures. It turns out that working in the field of geography and GIS is a fascinating way to make a living.


When you were a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A stand up comedienne.
What was your major in college?
I majored in Geography with a concentration in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I attended Mary Washington University in Virginia.
How did you pick this as your major?

I took Human Geography as a general education requirement and I started to fall in love with it – the interaction of people and their environment specifically based on the place. I really enjoyed studying the cultural aspects.

I then took a class in which we had the chance to make maps and they were all so cool. We would be in the lab all day – retrieving data so that we could do the mapping and analysis. For example, we studied information on a county in Virginia and figured out the area, based on certain characteristics, where it would be best to place vineyards. We also looked at population and demographics. I realized I really loved doing this when I put in so many hours and I didn’t mind.

One of my professors said that Geography is the way to have academic integrity and not pick just one thing to study.

What is your current job?
I am a Research Geographer and GIS Specialist at the United States Geological Survey. I work for one of my former professors at Mary Washington who taught part of the GIS curriculum.
How did you land the job with him?
When I was in school, I asked my professor for an internship because I graduated early and I wanted to get the GIS certificate. He gave me the internship initially and then a full-time job in June.
What is a typical day for you?

I am working on a couple of projects given to my boss by the State Department. They have asked us to monitor the capacity to produce diamonds in certain African countries based on the geology of the area and how many people are doing the mining, particularly small scale mining, based on the geography of the area. How many diamonds can they produce vs. how many they say they are producing and exporting? Could there be smuggling going on?

We are also looking at artisanal miners in Western Mali to answer several questions. Based on the location of the mines and the people, how far can the miners walk in one hour or four hours or eight hours from the mine site where there are roads, where there are rivers, the type of land cover, and the typography? Also, how many people live in those areas? This information will be helpful to the State Department or any NGO so they can figure out how many people are there (there is no census), where they are settling, and what type of health screenings or other assistance they might need.

I really like looking at the population demographics. Just recently I presented at the Association of American Geographers Conference on the western Mali artisanal mining project I have been working on.

What is the best part of your job?

Freedom to explore what I want to do. My boss will give me the information but I can do whatever I want with the data. We worked on a map together but I was able to submit it to a journal and it was accepted. This map will be featured in the Journal of Maps later this year:

This map will be featured in the Journal of Maps later this year

Sounds like you have a great boss?
Yes, I do!
Do many colleges offer GIS as a major?
Many colleges have GIS on a basic level. It gets much more interesting when you take higher-level courses in the subject.
When you are at parties, what do you tell people you do?
I make maps! Almost everyone says, “Don’t we already have maps? Didn’t Magellan and Columbus discover places?”
Is travel a part of your work?
I hope to travel to Africa. My boss travels to Africa to visit mine sites and interview miners.
Where else to GIS experts work?
Any organization that needs maps: newspapers, web sites, energy and engineering companies, petroleum corporations, defense contractors, research groups, and consulting firms. The Library of Congress always has a GIS internship.
What is your advice for college students seeking their groovy career?

Internships are a great way to find out what you really like to do. During school, I worked at a regional planning commission because I thought I might want to become an urban planner. I enjoyed the work but learned that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. What you learn in your classroom is cool but it doesn’t have an exact application.