After conducting a national search to find a replacement for former Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Program Director Stewart Bruce, Erica McMaster has been offered the position. McMaster formally stepped into the position on April 1, 2017 and will become the Associate Director of the Center for Environment & Society (CES).
“She has done a terrific job in managing the GIS Program for the past seven months, and we have every confidence in her ability to continue strengthening what is already one of the best GIS programs in the country,” Dr. John Seidel, director of the CES, said. McMaster joined the GIS Program in 2011 as a Project Manager and was recently promoted to Operations Manager in 2016. For seven months, McMaster has been managing the GIS Program after Bruce’s departure in August.
“When I first came to the Washington College GIS Program, Stewart Bruce was the director. He originally hired me as a project manager on the non-crime side, where we had a variety of projects related to 3D and land planning. The reason why Stew was interested in bringing me onto the team was because of my experience with the private sector working in civil engineering and land planning. We had focused on a lot of 3D style work at my last company, McCrone Inc., in Centreville,” McMaster said.
In addition to her work with 3D and land planning on the non-crime side of the Lab, McMaster also worked on the crime side for the Governor’s Office for Crime Control and Prevention (GOCCP) grant as a project manager, as well as the Maryland Highway Safety Office (MHSO) and Vehicle Theft (VT) grants.
When she moved into the role as Operations Manager, McMaster was tasked with focusing on the day-to-day operations of the GIS Program, specifically the lab portion.
“The last seven months was spent reviewing budgets, and focusing on grant renewals, grant reporting, and meetings with our grant funders. Those meetings were key in establishing objectives for each grant and each project in the lab. Some of my time was also spent focusing on the day-to-day challenges that we have with being a technical facility, with software, hardware, and other logistics. Especially with some of our programs that really extend beyond the traditional form of GIS – METS Guild has been a really huge program that we’ve been doing this year and then we’re also doing curriculum support for K-12,” she said.
Stepping into the role of Director of the GIS Program, McMaster will now have a greater focus on the academic side of the Program, while still overseeing the laboratory side.
“I will still be leading the laboratory side as the director, [but will be] really focusing on forging that long-term and short-term plan of where we’re going and the mission of the Program,” she said. “In addition, there will be a responsibility for consistently teaching the GIS academic courses and also in providing additional academic opportunities for the students.”
McMaster said that there are also plans to expand some of our programs like NGA CRADA, which is our research co-operative agreement that the Program has with NGA, as well as providing our students with opportunities to work with faculty and staff on campus doing GIS projects either for the community or for some other research.
Earlier this semester, McMaster spoke with several different classes on campus about how to incorporate GIS technologies into their coursework.
“A large focus is going to be showcasing GIS as an interdisciplinary sort of focus and interdisciplinary tool,” she explained. “Looking at some of the things that you’re studying from a non-spatial perspective in your coursework and adding a spatial perspective. I know this semester especially, we’ve worked with history, biology, sociology, and environmental studies. But we also want to expand that, especially to computer science and other programs that we really feel could utilize GIS technology.”
Moving forward, McMaster said that, in the nearly six years she’s been here, the Program has created a lab environment that really promotes student engagement and experiential learning.
“I think we’ve done a great job of that over the years of consistently being able to hire students and bring them on as freshman, train them, and really see them advance their skills, and really go on to have great job opportunities,” she said.
But she wants to do more to quantify the learning experience.
“What I want to do is – I want to build the academic side equally. I really want to see GIS utilized in more disciplines on campus, in more classrooms, in traditional courses that people are taking, and also establish a minor, and having something that students can take that is tangible.”
McMaster has over 15 years of experience in GIS and ESRI software products and is a certified GIS Professional through the GIS Certification Institute. When she first started her undergraduate degree in geography, she wasn’t set on the GIS path, however.
“When I first went into my program of study for my bachelor degree, I was really interested in the physical geography aspects, particularly meteorology and climatology,” she said. “So that was really what I was studying and even within those sub-disciplines of geography, I found that GIS was a great data visualization tool.”
Much of McMaster’s undergraduate work was taking tornado patterns and hurricane patterns and putting them on a map. Later she even began animating them over time.
“GIS was really a great tool to use,” she explained. “I think it was my sophomore year of my undergraduate experience, I was introduced to GIS and I actually had one of the professors tell me that it was kind of the way of the future, especially for geography. I did end up doing the geographic information science track, which led me into understanding databases, some basic programming, utilizing the tool sets that we’re using now in the lab environment.”
When McMaster began her master’s degree program, she was pulled into GIS work once the institution recognized her skill set.
“I think it was in a week [that] I was identified as having experience with GIS, and they ended up pairing me with a geography and geology program that utilized technology,” she said.
A lot of her research for her master’s thesis was the use of innovative technologies to solve problems and she was looking specifically at bank erosion and sedimentation issues.
“I was using GIS as a tool, and when I became more proficient in the tool, I found that you could use it for almost any research project and it really intrigued me and instead of being solely focused on physical geography or climatology, I decided I wanted to get more into using the tool for other purposes and that’s when I led into the profession of GIS,” she said.
After graduation, McMaster worked with McCrone, Inc., a civil engineering, land planning, and surveying firm located in Centreville, where she was responsible for basic stages of land planning using GIS.
“In some cases, we would have land owners or developers come that would be interested in a parcel of land and we would do preliminary studies that go into the suitability of a potential parcel for a development that they’re looking at,” she explained. “So I would pull together environmental layers, including land use, and I would try to put together a suitability analysis and then also create a preliminary build out using GIS and CAD. So you could start to see how far away the development is from the critical area, from wetlands, and how that is going to affect those areas.”
When she came to the Program in 2011, McMaster said that there was a combination of short-term GIS uses, as well as the long-term planning of GIS and “everything in between.”
With 15 years of experience, McMaster said that she is still interested in working with GIS because the technology is constantly changing.
“For some people that might be a challenge, but for me, it’s really helpful to see how, as we keep building with all of these advancements in technology, we’re not being stifled by that, we’re able to be ahead of the curve,” she said. “The technology, since it has rapidly changed, has allowed us to infiltrate the market of people thinking spatially. So when you’re looking at a house, you’re not only looking at your budget, you’re also looking at the neighborhood – it’s really made us incorporate GIS into our everyday lives because of the technological advancements. For me that’s really interesting and it makes you have to constantly be on your toes.”
The GIS Program is grateful to welcome Erica as the new Director and we are excited for the great things that we know she will accomplish!