by Lauren A. Martz
Last year I worked from June to December as a GeoCorps™ participant at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) New Mexico State Office (NMSO). It was a truly amazing experience packed with remarkable opportunities, thought-provoking interactions, early career development, and ample fun. The BLM NMSO is located in Santa Fe and acts as the headquarters of all BLM field offices within the state, in addition to administering regional jurisdiction over Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico and is situated in the north-central part of the state on a sky-high desert plateau. With an elevation just over 7,000 feet, Santa Fe is the highest capital city in America. The city rests at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which are the southernmost subrange of the Rocky Mountains. About 80,000 Santa Fe residents enjoy a mild, high-desert climate with four distinct seasons, over 300 days of glorious sunshine a year, and dramatic sunsets of all colors.
In many ways, I found Santa Fe to be a breath of fresh air. For starters, the air quality itself is incredible. In fact, TIME magazine has acknowledged, “If there’s a poster city in America for clean air and western living, it’s Santa Fe.” The capital regularly tops quality-of-life lists, and the environment is a major attribute. Santa Fe’s stellar environmental policies, strong cultural institutions, and history of progressive leadership are just a few aspects about the city that make it so compelling. Culturally, Santa Fe is in a league of its own. It is considered to be one of the top travel destinations in the world for its natural beauty, acclaimed Native American and Spanish-inspired art scene, and flavorful cuisine (especially green chile). The capital offers a completely unique aesthetic and attitude that has been successfully preserved with the help of local advocates, such as celebrity author George R. R. Martin (“Game of Thrones” creator). Overall, Santa Fe can best be described as a colorful city, reeling with southwest charm and a unique fusion of cultures.
While working in Santa Fe as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Assistant in Geology/Paleontology at the BLM NMSO, I focused on a project that involved creating a GIS database to display a map of the paleontological resources in Oklahoma through a system called the Potential Fossil Yield Classification (PFYC). The PFYC is a five-tiered system developed to evaluate the paleontological resource potential of geologic rock units. It is an initial assessment tool used to assist BLM managers in determination of which geologic units may contain paleontological resources by assigning a numerical ranking between 1 (very low potential) to 5 (very high). The PFYC evaluation can be applied to protect and preserve fossils, as well as highlight areas for paleontological research. Additional information about the PFYC system can be found here.
The Oklahoma PFYC map will give the BLM Oklahoma Field Office a better understanding of the paleontological resources in the state, and help them respond to proposed development in areas containing significant fossils through effective land-use planning. It could potentially help mitigate against adverse impacts to significant fossils by coordinating protection and monitoring activities.
Prior to starting my GeoCorps position, I anticipated spending the majority of my time in front of a computer (given the nature of GIS work). Like many other geoscientists, I favor being outside and working in the field; nevertheless, I knew it would still be a great learning experience. Fortunately, my supervisor was the BLM New Mexico Regional Paleontologist, and invited me to go on several extraordinary field trips.
On my first field trip, I went behind the scenes of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science in Albuquerque. During that visit, I had the opportunity to see their impressive collection of New Mexico fossils not currently on public display. Additionally, I had the privilege of participating in exciting paleontological field work on multiple occasions, helping to conduct surveys and excavations at a variety of BLM locations bearing Eocene-aged fossils. I also attended a press event for the return of a 70 million year-old tyrannosaur skull that was found in the Bisti Wilderness of northwestern NM some years ago, that had been on loan to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. for the past two and a half years. Plus, when the closest supermoon in 68 years took place in November 2016, a BLM photographer asked me and my supervisor to stand in for a silhouette shot of the historical and spectacular sight.
I had many great opportunities throughout my GeoCorps experience that kept me excited about getting up and going to work every day. These included being in New Mexico’s natural environment, the certainty that I would get to learn something new, and the other BLM employees I had the pleasure of working with. This GeoCorps experience provided me with the opportunity to ask questions and work directly with other BLM divisions, giving me a well-rounded perspective on how they conduct their work, and the role they play in the agency—as well as the challenges of their positions.
One of the highlights of my GeoCorps experience was presenting a poster on my Oklahoma PFYC project at the 2016 GSA Annual Meeting in Denver. It was my first time presenting at a professional conference, and therefore a meaningful milestone in my career as a geoscientist. In addition to presenting my work, and attending the GSA Annual Meeting gave me the opportunity to meet other BLM paleontologists from around the country. The conversations I had with these fossil experts helped me better understand how the BLM serves its mission to protect significant paleontological resources. It was very rewarding to hear how my efforts in this GeoCorps project directly supported that mission. Their approval and support instilled a greater sense of purpose in my work.
About halfway through my initial installment as a GeoCorps participant, my supervisor received a request from the BLM Oklahoma Field Office asking for a PFYC map to reference when reviewing project proposals. It was gratifying to learn that there was a need for what I was working on, but the map was far from finished. In order to meet their request in a timely manner, I had to quickly figure out a new approach. I ended up switching gears to solely focus on finishing the PFYC map for specific counties in which the BLM Oklahoma Field Office had an immediate interest. This solution required intense focus, but at the end of the day, I was able to deliver.
I was always mindful that someone would be depending on me to deliver a high-quality product. It was important that I get it right the first time, so that it could be used again, only requiring slight revisions in the future when new data needed to be added. While I worked on the majority of this project independently, evaluation of my work would not just reflect on me as person, but also on the GeoCorps program and the BLM.
A caveat of working on a GIS project comprised of many parts is that priorities can often change, even within the course of a day. I learned that a major part of this line of work is flexibility, and a willingness to change direction based on the prevailing situation. On any given day, I could be faced with a GIS situation that I had dealt with many times before, but in that particular instance, there would be something just a slightly different about it. Even when something stressful like this happened, I knew the GIS department at the BLM NMSO would always be willing to help me work through whatever issue I faced.
GeoCorps is a terrific opportunity to learn from others, openly ask questions, and strengthen your skillset. The key to making an impact with your project is to bring your enthusiasm, creative vision, and willingness to learn. A positive attitude can lift the spirits of others and provide them with fresh eyes to see things in a different light. I recommend taking an active role in your office and striving to make connections with everyone, because you never know who could be prompted to give you another opportunity. For example, my program was initially supposed to last for 12 weeks, but I ended up being extended 3 times thanks to additional funding from another department at the BLM NMSO. In total, the initial installment plus all the additional extensions, added up to 6 months!
I came into this GeoCorps project having previous GIS training and technical skills from college coursework, plus additional experience using GIS for industry-specific applications from another geology internship I did the summer prior. This opportunity provided me with invaluable early career work experience and a chance to further hone my GIS skills. It was the perfect stepping stone in my geoscience career after graduating from college, and proved to be an excellent transition into graduate school.
With the experience I gained over the course of my GeoCorps experience at the BLM, I felt that it would bring me a certain level of perspective, knowledge, and leadership to graduate school afterward. At the 2016 GSA meeting, I met with representatives from the MS Geology Program at the University of Louisiana. I was thrilled to be offered a Graduate Teaching Assistantship, which will cover the cost of my graduate education. It is my true belief that GeoCorps helped me become a more competitive graduate school applicant. I just finished a successful first semester at UL with a 4.0 GPA.
Reflecting on my GeoCorps adventure, I realize what a profound impact it had on the way I perceive geology. I now also have a much more informed perspective of the BLM. I am more situationally aware of the challenges and the difficult decisions facing the agency. It encouraged me to think about my career and what the future protection of natural resources might look like in light of pressures such as climate change, urban expansion, and increased demand for recreational areas from a growing population.
As a GeoCorps program participant, I was given outstanding opportunities to do paleontology field work and provide natural resource assistance to a federal agency. I gained invaluable work experience with the federal government, positively contributed to an important natural resource science project for the agency, and gained a fundamental understanding of the importance of conservation and resource stewardship on public lands. After this experience, I see myself as an ambassador for the BLM, and hope to heighten awareness about the agency. All of my experiences at the BLM left me with a strong desire to return and explore more career opportunities with the U.S. Department of the Interior. In the future, I intend to further use my professional network and continue to build, grow, and maintain the connections I have made.
I am truly grateful to the GeoCorps program for guiding my geoscience career in this direction, it has fueled my determination to make an impact in my field. It was an incredibly beneficial learning experience, both a geoscience perspective and on a personal level. This experience was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I would strongly encourage other geoscience students and recent graduates to pursue a position through the GeoCorps program. I enjoyed working at the BLM NMSO immensely, and will cherish the memories I made in New Mexico for years to come.