Emily Zvolanek is a senior GIS analyst in the Environmental Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory, where she has worked since 2010. Her primary functions include cartography and environmental and socioeconomic geospatial analyses for environmental impact statements, many of which pertain to renewable and standard energy development. Before coming to Argonne, she worked as a GIS technician in local government, focusing on public works asset management and creating interactive online maps. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science in 2006.
1) What inspired you to work in STEM?
I always had a curious mind and enjoyed learning new things. Looking back on my childhood, I’ve always had a scientific and analytical mind as well. I’m not exactly sure where my inspiration for a STEM career came from, though. Neither of my parents worked in a STEM field. I did not earn stellar grades in my hard science classes in high school. I always performed much better at English and foreign languages, but science had my interest. Environmental science captivated me. After I took an environmental science class in high school, I really couldn’t imagine working in another field.
2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
Geographic information systems is such a neat field because the skills can be applied to just about any subbject matter, including business, national security, and the environment. While I was learning about GIS I never questioned how I wanted to use my newly acquired skills. I knew that I wanted to use GIS as a mechanism for environmental issues and protection. As a GIS analyst in Argonne’s Environmental Science Division, I get to do just that every day. I have helped identify potentially suitable areas for wind energy development in the plains and solar energy development in the southwest. I have performed environmental justice analyses to ensure that minority and low income populations would not bear the brunt of potential health and environmental impacts of building and running a new nuclear power plant. I know that the work my colleagues and I do has real impact towards protecting and restoring the environment, and that is important to me.
3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
I think a number of factors need to change on large and small scales. In general, science, technology, engineering, and math need more support in this country. There seems to be a growing opinion in the US that people can choose to not believe in science if they disagree with results and conclusions that respected and reputable scientists report. I think the country as a whole has also lost enthusiasm for exploration and basic research. Attitudes such as these will not draw more people to the scientific community.
I also think we need to plant the STEM kernel at a young age. There are terrific STEM outreach programs that already exist for elementary and middle school students, but the need is greater than the supply. The existing programs need more resources – more support, more people, more funding – and we need more programs overall. In order to engage kids, we need to show them something scientifically exciting for their age. When I was young, I loved to watch the reaction between baking soda and vinegar (I still do). I was fascinated by that little gizmo that connected two pop bottles together so you could create water tornados (and by the water tornados). These should be staples in every classroom, so every child can experience the excitement, that first spark of scientific curiosity.
4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
In GIS, work experience is critically important. There is so much knowledge gained through the trial and error of finding or creating data and devising analyses that is not learned through the designed scenarios and scrubbed data offered in textbooks. I encourage anyone interested in GIS to search for internships, volunteer work, and summer research programs; anything that would garner real-world experience.
5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I am in graduate school part time, working towards a master’s degree in GIS with a focus on sustainability management. While not a hobby, it definitely occupies much of my free time. Other than that, I love music, whether listening to it, playing it (guitar and ukulele), or seeing a live performance. I also enjoy reading and knitting. I’m getting quite good at hats.