Mapping internships teach geography student importance of field work

Ryan Gallagher has certainly mapped his way to a foundation for entering the field in geography.

Over the last two summers, Gallagher, a Schreyer Scholar majoring in geography at Penn State, completed two internships that did something positive -- first, mapping stormwater drainage systems for College Township, in State College, Pennsylvania; then mapping data for Riparia, a wetlands research center housed in Penn State’s Department of Geography on the University Park campus.

Working in the field

As an intern with College Township, Gallagher used mapping software and GPS hardware to help update the township's stormwater maps.

Before the internship, Gallagher sharpened his map-making skills prior to the internship in GEOG 361: Cartography – Maps and Map Construction, where he used software similar to what he used in his internship.

“I spent the afternoons driving to the different stormwater sites over a several mile radius, and used the GPS to collect location data, which I then uploaded to ArcMap, a mapping software program. It was neat to use techniques I learned at Penn State to update the maps for College Township,” he said.

At Riparia, Gallagher helped a team of researchers analyze environmental conditions and collect soil samples from wetland sites, which are used to help monitor the condition of the wetland. He also measured the very small scale variations in the height of the ground surface, or microtopography, of the wetland site. He measured the elevation over three-meter segments. Microtopography is especially important to Gallagher because the differences in elevation in each wetland can affect the hydrology and functioning of the ecosystem.

“This really helped me to learn about practicing geography in the field, and I’m thankful for the hands-on experience,” Gallagher said.

Manipulating data to form a thesis

Gallagher is now using techniques from both internships in his Schreyer Scholar honors thesis. Working with his thesis adviser, Robert Brooks, who is also the director and founder of Riparia. Gallagher is comparing two different methods of measuring microtopography.

“One method measures elevation change every meter on a straight line, and the other measures the change every 10 centimeters along two perpendicular three-meter straight lines. We have a lot of data to analyze for my thesis, but I’m excited to dive into it,” he said.

Through both internships, Gallagher learned the importance of using cutting-edge equipment in the field, as well as the need for attention to detail when it comes to making maps and collecting data.

“Both internships were really beneficial because I learned how to conduct research in a professional manner and understand what it takes to do hands on work. The professionals that I worked with taught me to be ambitious and diligent in my work, and I’m appreciative of their expertise,” he said.

Last Updated January 14, 2016