Doctoral student melds passions for science, helping others in FEMA job

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Geography doctoral student Adrienne Kramer has always wanted to help people, and her first job out of college is letting her do this for potentially millions of people affected by hurricanes, flooding and other disasters. As an emergency management specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), Kramer is able to apply her geography skills to build maps, analytical tools and other resources to help the agency improve its response and recovery operations.

But that is not Kramer's only role at FEMA.

Like the hundreds of employees in FEMA's National Response Coordination Center in Washington, D.C., Kramer may get "activated" in response to a disaster, she said. Then, her 40-hour-per-week job is put on hold. Her title changes to GIS unit lead, and she guides a team of five people in figuring out which geographic areas have been most severely affected, and how FEMA can deploy or reallocate resources to help people who have been displaced or impacted by a disaster.

"We're constantly brainstorming what kinds of analysis we can do to show areas that are most impacted," she said. "For example, in a county with power outages, can we figure out the number of elderly people dependent on electricity? And can we move those people to a safer place if certain access roads are closed?"

When FEMA is activated, its employees' work schedules undergo a drastic change.

"Logistically, one of the biggest challenges everyone faces is sleep," Kramer said. "We work 12-hour nights for seven nights in a row, then switch to 12 hours in the day for seven days in a row."

This schedule continues until FEMA is notified that state and local response teams no longer need federal assistance, which can last for weeks at a time. In 2017, the barrage of hurricanes making landfall in the U.S. — Harvey, Irma, Maria — activated the center for a record-setting eight weeks straight.

Thousands of people, sometimes millions, rely on FEMA's ability to step in with the right resources at the right time.

"My father and uncle lived in the track of one hurricane in 2017, so that was a tough night for me as we watched what was happening," Kramer said. "But it's not only me. There are hundreds of people working together, and many have family members who might be affected by disasters. Everyone does what they need to do to get things done; everyone is focused."

A path to FEMA through geography

Many of the GIS skills, mentoring techniques and analytical thinking approaches Kramer uses on the job are ones she honed as a doctoral student at Penn State.

"The training you receive as a graduate student gives you the ability to think analytically in a way that many people don't do by default," said Kramer, who defended her dissertation in December and is expected to graduate in May. "I also loved being a teaching assistant and instructor, and I've been able to take what I've learned about mentoring and guiding and apply that to lead a team."

Kramer's interest in geography and emergency management evolved from an early interest in severe weather.

"I remember sitting on our porch with my father watching storms coming in as a kid," said Kramer, who hails from Washington, D.C.

A lover of math and science, Kramer started off her undergraduate studies as a mathematics major at the State University of New York at Geneseo. She took a geography class taught by a climatology professor and was hooked on the subject.

"I had taken an AP [Advanced Placement] human geography class in high school, which really interested me, but I didn't realize there was a wonderful world of geography where you could use both quantitative and qualitative skills at the same time," she said.

Creating tools of the trade

After graduating with a bachelor of science in geography in 2013, Kramer came to Penn State to work with another climatologist, Andrew Carleton, professor of geography, for both her master’s and doctoral degrees. Her initial research explored the interactions between the land and atmosphere during derechos, extreme straight-line windstorms. For her doctorate she expanded upon this theme to examine the same storms from an emergency management standpoint.

"In some of my work I took an applied approach and developed an impact scale and a GIS tool that you can use in emergency management situations," she said.

She developed the tool while working as an intern with FEMA in 2016, which morphed into her current full-time job. The tool, which Kramer is still refining with her colleagues at FEMA, uses geographic data to give a rough estimate of potential areas that might have poor access to needed resources following a storm.

"It has always been important to keep people in mind and human impacts," Kramer said. "This tool was a good way to meld those things and create something useful."

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Last Updated February 08, 2018