Melanie Vanderhoof

Research Geographer, U.S. Geological Survey

Education: Ph.D. in Geography (Clark University), M.A. in Geography (San Francisco State University), B.S. in Biology and Society (Cornell University)

Describe your job. What are some of the most important tasks or duties for which you are responsible?
I lead research that uses diverse sources of satellite imagery to help us understand how ecosystems respond to stressors, such as a drought, flood, or fire. I am responsible for proposing research ideas, leading data acquisition and analysis, publishing results in peer-reviewed journals, and collaborating with others.

What attracted you to this career path?
I started my career in the private consulting industry as a biologist. Although I loved the field work, I quickly got bored with my position. What is so attractive about my current career path is that I can take every project as an opportunity to learn something new and push myself outside of my comfort zone, either technically or within the fields of ecology and hydrology. I also really enjoy the flexibility to pursue research that I find interesting and that I hope is relevant and useful to other scientists, land managers, and society at large.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position?
To me, geography is a way of thinking. Instead of thinking about a topic in isolation, geography embraces complexity, looking for patterns across space and time, making connections across disciplines, and seeking to understand the global context in which a phenomenon occurs. This perspective drives my approach to research. I tend to include as many different types and sources of data in a single analysis as I can. I think of it as throwing all the data in a pot and stirring it until I start to understand how each dataset informs the others and fits together into a single story.

More directly, my most useful courses were technical courses that explored remote sensing and ecology as well as courses that pushed me to think critically about research and knowledge.

What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often?
I use my geographic skills in remote sensing and GIS the most often in my work. Other general skills and information that I rely heavily on include writing, statistics, programming, ecology and hydrology.

Are there any skills or information you need for your work that you did not obtain through your academic training? If so, how/where did you obtain them?
The field of remote sensing continues to evolve rapidly as “big data” approaches have become the new normal. My skills in programming were inadequate from my academic training, entirely due to my own initial aversion to programming. My programming skills in JavaScript, Python, and R have improved over time mostly from self-teaching as well as learning from colleagues and collaborators more skilled in programming than myself.

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for?
Yes, I participate in hiring, screening and training new employees. In research we are always trying something new, which means that there tends to be less structure and more trial and error in any given project. I look for people who show a demonstrated interest in science and the natural world, are resilient, responsible, and enjoy problem solving and being creative.

What advice would you give to someone interested in a job like yours?
Go for it! I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to be both a geographer and a scientist! To someone who was interested in a job like mine, I would advise them to find an area of research that you can get excited about, get involved in research projects with different scientists, talk to as many people as you can who have jobs that you might want, and publish!

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers?
I think geography is an exciting place to be right now. Most of my friends and colleagues in the field have successfully obtained jobs either in academia or with the federal government. And skills in GIS, remote sensing, data analysis, and machine learning are currently widely marketable.