Interview with Nitesh Tripathi: Education in Interdisciplinary Ecology and GIS

Nitesh Tripathi is a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida, in the Interdisciplinary Ecology program. He has a Master's degree in Geographic Information Systems from Wageningen University and Research Center, and an MBA in Rural Management from the Indian Institute of Rural Management. He obtained his Bachelor's degree in Agricultural Sciences from G.P Pant University.

Mr. Tripathi has worked for 3001 Inc., ESRI, and as a graduate course instructor at the University of Redlands in their Master's in GIS program. He has worked on several research projects involving the application of GIS technology to ecology. These projects included land use planning, transportation planning, agriculture, and GIS mapping in The Netherlands, Spain and the United States. He believes that understanding the interdisciplinary nature of today's ecological problems is the key to come up with effective solutions.

We interviewed him to discuss his views and experiences as an environmental student and, in particular, the growing importance of GIS in the world of environmental professionals, academic, and students.

About Mr. Tripathi About & His Career

Tell us about your environmental background. Why did you choose to pursue Interdisciplinary Ecology?

I completed my undergraduate studies in agricultural sciences at G.P. Pant University in India. I got my MBA in rural management (specialization in rural marketing) from the Indian Institute of Rural Management, and studied for some time in this field. I also obtained my Masters in GIS from Wageningen University and Research Center, in The Netherlands. My research focused on the use of GIS for transportation planning, which involved using environmental impact assessment from proposed road projects. I believe that the environment is an integral part of most development programs related to agriculture, rural development and planning in general, and approaching environmental problems from an interdisciplinary focus helps us to come up with the best solutions for these problems. This led me to the Interdisciplinary Ecology program at the University of Florida, where I am pursuing my Ph.D.

What are your long-term and short-term goals that have guided you through your environmental education?

My long-term goals on the professional front are to contribute to conservation and development and to further the use of GIS technology for these efforts. My short-term goals are to be happy with what I do and to spread the enthusiasm towards conservation of our natural resources.

What do you plan to do after you graduate? Do you think that your experience in GIS and Ecology will help you get a good job?

After graduation, I plan to work for an organization that focuses on the conservation of natural resources using GIS mapping, application development, and enterprise solutions.

GIS skills definitely give weight to anyone's resume, which helps when looking for a job. It has applicability in almost every possible field of study.

You have taught GIS courses at the University level and have also worked in the GIS industry. How are these two experiences different and what are the challenges in both?

Both teaching and industry have their own advantages and challenges. In teaching, one has to be thorough with the content and constantly ready for new and unique questions from students. This makes you know the subject in and out as you learn with the students. In industry though, the biggest challenge is to keep up with the changes in the technology itself. Everything changes so fast, that while you are working on one technology or one version of the software, another one comes out. So you have to keep updated all the time. You cannot afford to lag behind, and that can be challenging.

Do you think that studying in different countries brought a different perspective to your studies? Would you recommend studying abroad to other students?

Yes, studying in different countries definitely broadens your horizons in many ways. Studying in Europe and then here in US has given me the best of both worlds. The experience of studying in two very different educational systems adds versatility to your knowledge, and at the same time it makes you aware of the advantages and shortcomings of each. There are many different approaches to research and education and it helps to have experienced them. I would definitely recommend that students integrate courses offered through study abroad programs into their curriculum.

About Interdisciplinary Ecology and GIS

What exactly is Interdisciplinary Ecology? How is it different from regular ecology?

Interdisciplinary Ecology, as its name implies, is an ecology major which cuts across departmental lines and brings together related courses in various disciplines. Traditionally, ecological problems were not studied or approached from an interdisciplinary view. In today's complex world, we recognize that a pluralistic and collaborative approach to solving these issues is necessary. In Interdisciplinary Ecology, one looks for common solutions to social, natural and ecological problems.

You also specialize in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). What are the applications that you see in the field of Interdisciplinary Ecology?

It has the same applications for Interdisciplinary Ecology as it does for many other subjects. Applications range from simple mapping and analysis, to the more complex, database-driven ecological modeling applications. Recently, through a GIS mapping project, we discovered ecological relationships among bats and marine mammals in Papua New Guinea. GIS helps us to study and visualize datasets in a way it was not possible before! GIS-based ecological models on the Internet are also becoming important in ecological studies for online data analysis and for sharing results.

Please tell us something about the certifications you have in GIS and GPS technology. What are some of the latest applications in the GIS technology?

GIS certifications are a good way to make you marketable for jobs. I have ESRI certifications in ArcIMS, ArcSDE, Geodatabase Design Concepts, Creating and Managing Geodatabases, Visual Basic for ESRI Software and certification for GPS Mapping for GIS with Asset Surveyor from Trimble.

The latest applications in GIS technology are web services and location-based services, and wireless and mobile applications of GIS technology. Although mapping and spatial analysis remain the most important components, the present GIS trends are also moving ahead with the advancement of mainstream Information Technology (IT) industry. The importance and integration of the spatial data with the mainstream IT products, such as CRM systems, is expanding and hence knowledge of programming languages like Visual Basic and JAVA is becoming an important skill.

Tell us something about your current PhD research. What do you think is the most important aspect of this research?

My research is currently focused on the Florida "water transfer" debate that has been a heated topic for the state for almost three decades. I am developing a Spatio-Temporal Decision Support Model using linear programming and GIS which looks at the feasibility and impacts of water transfer in Florida. The unique element of the research is that the model will account for the climatic variations of the region. Certain scenarios, such as El Niño, La Niña, and episodic climatic events, will be identified and proposed and predictions will be made based on land-use change, population, and water demand projections. Finally, the model will study and measure the resilience of the system for each of these scenarios, in the event of a proposed transfer. The research is intended to put forward a useful model, which will shed some light on this problem.

Please tell us about some of the more interesting projects you've worked on. Do you find this kind of work to be rewarding? Why or why not?

For the past four years, I have worked on a number of interesting projects and assignments, all of which involved GIS. During 2002, I was involved with a NASA project, Land-Use and Land-Cover Change, that linked historical land use and land cover change to carbon signatures in order to study the change in carbon storage over a 25-year period in history in Southeastern US. The challenge was constructing GIS coverage for the study area as it might have looked in at that time in history.

I have worked at 3001 Inc. and ESRI and have taught graduate courses at the University of Redlands, in their Masters in Science GIS program. Lately, I have been working on the spatial distribution and ecology of bats and marine mammals of Papua New Guinea with Dr. Frank Bonaccorso, a leading international expert on these animals. The maps of marine mammals produced in this project are the most comprehensive maps ever produced of the species for the region. The maps will be a part of a book he has written. The book is titled "Marine Mammals of Melanesia: Whales, Dolphins, Porpoises, and Dugongs" and is under review.

Working on research projects like these is definitely rewarding. One project leads to another. A researcher's versatility, as well as his or her diversity and specialization of knowledge, is the key to being able to tap opportunities in many different fields.

Education In The Field: What To Expect

Tell us about your education and training. What have you liked? What did you dislike, or what do you wish you could do over again?

I am quite satisfied with the educational training I have acquired. On the positive side, my interdisciplinary education has helped me to have a hand in both the natural sciences and technology at the same time. If I had a chance to do anything over again, I would want to have a more solid base in some of the computer science courses. This is more of a need now because everything today is technology driven, even fields like ecology. Otherwise, I am very satisfied with what I have achieved so far.

What kind of undergraduate and graduate work can prepare a student for doctoral work in Interdisciplinary Ecology? Are there any important skills or technical training they should be sure to get along the way?

The beauty of any interdisciplinary program is that it cuts across traditional departmental boundaries. Students with almost any background can pursue their research interests. In IE program here at UF, I have seen students with backgrounds in everything from anthropology to agricultural sciences, with varying levels of technological skills like programming, databases or even GIS and remote sensing. The program encompasses many different fields of study and offers students with varied educational backgrounds the flexibility to design their own curriculum. This, I think, is a very unique aspect of the program and that is why it has drawn tremendous response from students from all over the world.

Personally, I feel that an undergraduate degree in any of the specialized fields of study like agriculture, horticulture, forestry, environmental sciences, ecology etc. with basic courses in pure biological sciences like botany and zoology will be a very good foundation to start with. It is also important to keep abreast of the latest technology and tools in the field. These can be statistical tools like SPSS, database tools, or updated skills in GIS and/or remote sensing. Some background courses in social sciences would be a plus, although not essential. A Masters program is the time to refine one's interests and also develop skills in one's chosen direction of study. I think with this approach you will have a very sound foundation to pursue doctorate study in the direction of IE.

Why did you choose to pursue a doctorate degree? What are the advantages of having a doctorate in your field?

My intention to pursue a doctorate was a logical extension of my learning process to put together all my educational background and my academic and scientific interests into one program.

A doctorate degree has two general purposes; first, to expand your knowledge of the field of interest, and secondly, to allow you to specialize in one area of the field. It also lays the foundation for your professional career after the doctorate. Obviously there are opportunities to expand your area of interest later on, as you progresses in your career, but a doctorate degree, I feel, pretty much decides one's future area of work if not a specific area. This, I think is very important for anyone who wishes to address a scientific problem while keeping a broad perspective.

Do you have any advice on how students can choose the best school that fits their needs?

Researching schools and programs based on your focused interest would be an ideal way to choose a school that fits your needs. You should also consider writing to faculty in your programs of interest, in order to get an insiders' point of view.

In your opinion, what are the top schools worldwide in your field of study?

I do not know the rankings of ecology schools worldwide. In my opinion, some of the best schools in Europe are Wageningen University in The Netherlands, and programs in Norway and Finland. Some of the more well-known programs in the U.S. are:

The IE program at the University of Florida is also a highly regarded program.

The Industry

What are some emerging trends in Interdisciplinary Ecology that might help students to better prepare for their future in the field?

Emerging trends in ecology in general include an increasing focus on global problems and policy, human aspects of resource management, values and ethics, and conservation biology. Sustainability is another globally emerging trend that applies to all disciplines that deal with natural systems.

For students to be better prepared to address the challenges of these emerging trends, it is important for them to propose innovative solutions using the latest technology, including applications of information technology. For this, one will have to delve into diverse disciplines (an interdisciplinary approach) to come up with sustainable solutions to these ever emerging ecological issues. One such example could be a database-driven software application for preserving the intellectual property of an indigenous tribe.

How have computers and the Internet, specifically, changed the field of ecology?

The proliferation of computers and the availability of Internet resources have tremendously enriched the field of ecology. Computer and web-based ecological models have added new dimensions to data accumulation and analysis in ecological studies. Development of computer programs for biodiversity and environmental data management, environmental prediction, and analysis are some of the important ways in which computers are used in ecology. Digital and online conservation atlases are also an application where computers and the Internet are used in ecology. Computer simulations and downloadable models have become a reality only because of the advances in computer and Internet technology.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing Interdisciplinary Ecologists today?

Some of the major environmental challenges for this century facing ecologists and environmental scientists globally are pollution prevention and cleanup, transition to alternative energy systems, providing food and fiber, addressing human population growth, biodiversity, and climate change.

As a profession, interdisciplinary ecologists are often looked down upon for not having a 'specialization' or for not having a base in a traditional discipline. It is therefore challenging to be diverse in your knowledge base and also having a focus at the same time. I feel there has to be a balanced symbiotic relationship between having a specialization and a broad approach in ones knowledge and skill set.

Interdisciplinary ecologists today also face the challenge of being open to newer viewpoints and perspectives. New partnerships and collaboration of disciplines is the key to addressing these issues of global importance and ecologists today need to be constantly aware of this.

Closing

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your education or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in Interdisciplinary Ecology?

'Interdisciplinary' is the new mantra these days, so young professionals need to be as diverse in their knowledge as they can be. At the same time, it is important to have a sound base in one of your chosen fields of interest. Move forward with the industry trends and keep updated with the latest skills. GIS surely is at the 'tip of the iceberg' and is one of the most marketable skills today.

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