When Mapping and Modesty Don’t Mix: A Lesson in Self-Promotion

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Alice Stevenson, C+S ’17

When I tell friends, family, or strangers about the work I’ve been doing, the reactions all tend to be something along the lines of, “wow, GIS! Sounds interesting…what is it?” I always respond with a speech that, after having recited it dozens of times, is very well rehearsed.

I explain that I’m working with Action Against Hunger, an organization dedicated to saving millions of starving children worldwide. I then explain that GIS, or geographic information systems, is, in the most basic sense, map-making. Specifically, I use GIS to both examine and communicate the state of nutrition in areas where Action Against Hunger works. If the inquiring individual is extra inquiring, I’ll tell them about the specific work I’m doing, such as creating maps for the Modelling Early Risk Indicators to Anticipate Malnutrition program or the Nutrition Causal Analysis studies. I may even show them a map or two.

The necessity of this speech was to be expected. In it’s relatively standard practice to give a clarification of what things mean. I wasn’t expecting, however, to have to explain what I do to people who are actually in my field.

When my supervisor introduced me to the staff at Action Against Hunger’s New York headquarters, everyone knew what GIS was. They understood the acronym and generally knew that the end product would be a map of some sort.

But with no permanent GIS strategy or staff within the office and coworkers with little knowledge of the benefits and possibilities of spatial analysis, it was my responsibility to set up meetings with the main staff in charge of programs to discuss what I could offer them as the GIS intern. During these meetings, it became clear that people weren’t going to be able to tell me how I could help. Instead, I was going to need to be able to sell my skills and succinctly tell them what I could do.

I had to explain that GIS could be used to make maps to show donors how nutrition is improving thanks to Action Against Hunger’s work. Or that GIS could be used to show which areas are being neglected and need immediate assistance. Or it could even be used to determine which variables as diverse as water availability and months spent breastfeeding have the most significant impact on malnutrition. If I wasn’t able to make it so the person on the other side of the desk fully understood the potential of GIS to enhance nutritional interventions, Action Against Hunger would be losing an opportunity to save even more children’s lives.

Other than furthering my technical skills and my understanding of humanitarian aid operations, I learned an important new skill during my internship: I need to be able to market myself and ensure that others realize my value. If I wasn’t able to showcase my GIS abilities, I would have contributed very little to the organization. I would have been left making ad hoc and relatively niche maps for my coworkers, rather than making the maps that truly needed to be made. I took the initiative to make people aware of the fact that I am capable of providing valuable work.

When you’re working in a complex, interdisciplinary and in terms of job prospects, competitive field, it is crucial to be able to communicate what you do, how you do it, and why it matters. It is more than okay to take pride in your skills and to be satisfied with what you’ve accomplished. And as a woman in science and technology, it’s even more important to be able to do away with unnecessary, misplaced humility and show people what you can do. And, on that note, I hope you enjoy some of the cool maps that I’ve made.


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