Kuskokwim River, Alaska

When the Ebola crisis struck West Africa in 2014, Melany Zimmerman used her GIScience skills she had amassed at Oregon State University to help. She was working as an intern for the U.S. Department of State in the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU), mapping the safest and most effective areas for Red Cross and other aid groups to combat the disease. In another project, she used an open source mapping tool – Open Street Map – to take stock of major infrastructure in the Philippines to identify areas most vulnerable to a super typhoon.

"My work at the HIU was a collaborative effort to map areas across the globe where there is little information on the infrastructure to assess and plan for potential emergencies," she said. "Being a part of an international team to do this kind of work was pretty amazing."

For Zimmerman, her internship has been a crucial part of her online graduate GIScience certificate, a 19-credit distance education program that gives students a flexible way to learn fundamental and emerging geospatial tools.

"It validated for me that GIS and remote sensing are important and ubiquitous tools that can help in the preparation and response to humanitarian emergencies worldwide," Zimmerman said.

Interestingly, humanitarian work was never a career goal for Zimmerman. She had a long-standing interest in maps and remote sensing, planning elaborate ski trips and international travel experiences using satellite imagery to unearth clues about landscapes. Her work experience is sprinkled with stints in the sciences, including working for a neutrino detector facility in Antarctica and performing seismology research at the Geophysical Institute in Alaska. Even with no experience in humanitarian work, Zimmerman's courses in remote sensing, programing and other subjects prepared her to make the leap.

"My background is in science. To change the whole scope of my experience in GIS and turn it into humanitarian emergency response was an interesting way to apply my skills," she said. "I had never considered it and knew nothing about it. But it was fascinating how you could use GIS to respond to natural disasters or disease outbreaks."

Alongside her GIS certificate, Zimmerman is earning a master's of environmental science at the Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. There she is studying hydrology and river hydrokinetics in a project that brings together GIScience and renewable energy. She will be mapping river drainage networks to assess their potential to harness energy and help power Alaska.