After two years as an art major, Sunny Fleming decided it wasn’t for her.
As a student at Austin Peay State University, she wasn’t sure what to do, but much of her artwork was nature-oriented. She said a professor at the university asked if she might be interested in switching to botany.
“I said, ‘Sure. OK,’ … and I immediately failed my first semester of classes,” she recalled. “I called my father and I was crying and I was like, ‘I’ve made the worst mistake,’ and he encouraged me to stick with it.”
Sticking with it led Fleming to transfer to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as a sophomore and earn a degree in biology in 2013. Through her work at UTC and beyond, she has followed a path that has earned her a reputation as one of the country’s foremost experts on Geographical Information Systems, or GIS.
Fleming was the keynote speaker for the University’s GIS Day event on Wednesday, Nov. 15. She now works for Esri, a global leader in GIS software and its vast uses, and she detailed some of the aspects of GIS that can be used in various careers.
Now a standard in mapmaking, GIS can create 3D images of landscapes, rivers, forests and other environmental settings, giving a more complete view for research and other studies. It can show where trees need planting to battle climate change; where invasive plant species are spreading; where endangered animals are clustered.
It also can be used to help with, among other applications, environmental regulation, wildlife management, the use of outdoor recreation areas, pollution monitoring and the economic impact of environmental laws, said Fleming, whose work at Esri covers those fields.
“So environmental behavior, economic behavior and human behavior can all come together at once on a map,” she said. “So a lot of times in my work I’m championing and being a cheerleader for the work of our environmental community.”
In a recent project, students in the IGTLab used GIS to map invasive plant species at the Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center at the foot of Lookout Mountain.
“For our biology and environmental science students, it’s becoming more common that employers are listing GIS experience as something that’s preferential for them,” said Monica Miles, associate lecturer in the Department of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science and leader of the project.
As part of GIS Day, Nyssa Hunt, assistant GIS director in the IGTLab at UTC, led a workshop on how to use survey software when working with GIS. While the software can be used to track native plants and wildlife, as expected, its abilities cover much more than that, she said.
“You can make surveys for everything,” she said, from the location of birds and graffiti, even “your favorite taco place.”
Whatever GIS information is gained through survey and mapping software can be used as more than just a snapshot of a particular situation, Fleming said. “It’s a crystal ball,” she said.
“GIS is something that you can use not only for understanding our current operating picture but for predicting the future,” Fleming said.
“For cities creating climate action plans like the city of Chattanooga—which has a great climate action plan—how can we use GIS tools to understand: ‘OK, here’s our city now. Here’s where all the trees are at right now. And how does planting trees in areas that lack them contribute to our climate resilience into the future?’
“Without trees, flooding danger and overall heat increases and trees can offset both of those things while also contributing to greater property values and greener neighborhoods, which also offsets economic issues like healthcare costs.”