Information Science and Management: Jim Burd

Jim works on several projects that look at the spatial distribution and structure of estuarine habitats as they relate to the distribution and abundance of fish species.

B.S. Geography, minor in Mathematics, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 1995
M.S. Geography, University of South Carolina, 1998

In 1995, I graduated from the University of Maryland Baltimore County with a BS in Geography and a minor in Mathematics. I went on to earn my MS degree in Geography at the University of South Carolina in 1998.
As a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Analyst for Michael Baker, Jr., Inc., I worked on-site at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Mapping and Analysis Center performing GIS analyses and making maps for federally declared disasters.

After leaving that position, I worked as a GIS Specialist with The Louis Berger Group, Inc. At Berger, I worked as a consultant performing natural resource GIS analyses and developing Web sites for federal and private clients such as the Army Corps of Engineers, Minerals Management Service (MMS), Federal Energy Resource Commission (FERC), and Duke Energy Corporation.

I have been an Assistant Research Scientist for the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute since 2000. My work has included developing informational CD-ROMs about Harmful Algal Blooms, developing interactive Internet mapping Web sites, and using GIS and landscape ecology methods to quantify landscape structure.

Two specific landscape ecology projects that I have worked on include a NOAA Marfin grant to study fisheries species in Charlotte Harbor and a South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) grant to measure changes in seagrass habitat. For the NOAA Marfin grant, my research partner and I used various GIS-derived data sets with Fisheries-Independent Monitoring sampling data to model where several fisheries species occur. Specifically, I developed methods to measure landscape structure of various habitats such as seagrass and mangroves. My analyses answered questions such as, "How much mangrove edge exists within x-distance of this location, and how much seagrass habitat exists within y-distance of that location?" For the South Florida Water Management District grant, I used Fragstats, a specialized GIS application for landscape ecology, to measure the landscape structure (configuration of habitat patches) of dense and sparse seagrass for areas in Florida Bay. These measurements may be used to gauge seagrass changes as water flow into Florida Bay is modified due to the Everglades restoration.


What are you working on now?
Recently, I have worked on a handful of projects that look at the spatial distribution and structure of estuarine habitats as they relate to the distribution and abundance of fish species. One such project is providing GIS analyses for the Tampa Bay ECOSPACE modelling effort. For this project, we used a variety of habitat and shoreline data sets to develop a habitat classification system to be used for modelling fish species. Another example is the Tampa Bay Seatrout spawning project where we are using landscape-level habitat measurements to build exploratory models that describe Seatrout spawning in Tampa Bay. Finally, we expanded on our Charlotte Harbor work (described above in the explanation of the NOAA Marfin grant) and applied these analyses to the Tampa Bay and Indian River Lagoon estuaries.

In addition to the landscape ecology work, I continue to work on several internet-based applications that include interactive mapping components. Two such projects include the Research Projects of the Big Cypress Watersheds and the Florida Oceans and Coastal Council's Research Review. Both applications allow users to perform tabular or spatial queries on metadata databases to identify data sets or research activities of interest.

Was GIS work your original career interest?
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and landscape ecology were not my original career interests. From childhood, I wanted to be a marine biologist studying charismatic macrofauna (dolphins, turtles, whales, etc.) and doing something good for the environment. I ended up going to the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and found out that UMBC's Biology program focused on microbiology. At the time, it offered little-to-no ecology curriculum. The summer between high school and college, I completed a marine biology internship studying growth hormone of striped bass. I accomplished tasks as varied as pipetting, using centrifuges, and preparing polyacrylamide gels. I quickly realized that I did not want to spend the rest of my life in a lab; I wanted to have a career where I spent most of my time outdoors.

For the next several years, I took mathematics and statistics courses and focused on the university's general requirements. At the beginning of my junior year, I chose to major in geography because I found my two geography courses fun and exciting. I concentrated on the technical side of the geography program, taking courses in GIS, remote sensing, and cartography because the course work was more practical and would afford more job opportunities. It is ironic that this would lead me to computer-based jobs that offer little time outdoors. I went directly to graduate school, where I completed a master of science degree in Geography with a focus in geographic techniques and landscape ecology. I worked in Washington, DC, as a consultant for several years. Since I have a passion for marine science, research, and helping the environment, consulting in Washington was not very fulfilling. Although it involved significant pay cut, I jumped at the opportunity to work at FWRI.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment?
My biggest accomplishment is maintaining both a strong marriage and family. No matter how much you like or dislike your job or your career, striving for balance in all aspects of your life is critical to being a stable, happy, well-grounded individual. For me, my foundation begins with both my family and my faith.

What do you like most about your career?
With my job at FWRI, I like the freedom and support I have to pursue research and apply GIS and landscape ecology to marine and estuarine science.

What do you like least about your career?
GIS is a predominantly computer-based field, which, at times, I find difficult. I do hope that at some point in my life, I will find more balance in my job-spending less time working on a computer and more time interacting with other people (teaching, managing, outreach, working on teams) or working in the field (outdoors).

What are some of your biggest challenges?
Finding a sufficient amount of time to pursue research has been my biggest challenge. Although my supervisors encourage the research I am doing, most GIS efforts are product-oriented and allow little time for research. Research is very time intensive, and results are difficult to quantify. In an environment bent on measurable goals and products, it is often hard to justify research endeavors. I feel lucky that my management has the vision to see the potential and support the research with which I am involved.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?
GIS is more of a tool than a field. Unless you truly wish to be a human or physical geographer, acquire a degree in something other than geography: biology, ecology, planning, environmental science, etc. GIS software is becoming easier to use, and you will probably be more valuable to your employer if you have a focus in another area. Although having the fundamentals of GIS is important, having a unique background is often an asset. I feel that having a background in landscape ecology makes me much more valuable to FMRI than if I just had strong GIS skills.

However, it will always be important to have some formal coursework in GIS, remote sensing, and cartography. Many universities offer a certificate program in GIS and related techniques. These programs vary greatly in quality. So many people claim to be "GIS experts," yet few of them understand important areas such as projections (methods of representing round earth as flat maps), datums (methods defining the earth's size and shape and defining the origin and orientation of the coordinate systems used for mapping), and cartographic (mapping) standards.

On a similar note, GIS research jobs are quite rare. Many researchers use GIS, but very few GIS people do research. If you want to be a scientist, specialize in something else and learn GIS as a tool to use for your science. Remember that GIS jobs are predominantly computer-based. If you mind spending most, and in many cases ALL, of your time on a computer, GIS may not be the best field for you.

It is not all analysis. Since there are wide varieties of analyses that a GIS person must know, college GIS courses often focus on different analyses using canned data sets. Although performing GIS analyses is probably the most fun aspect of any GIS job, it is what you will spend the least amount of time doing. Most GIS professionals spend much of their time on data development, which is often tedious work that requires a lot of patience. Some jobs do have mapping or programming focuses. Rarely will you find a job that focuses on analysis.

There are wide varieties of jobs working for the government, for engineering and consulting firms, and for private industry. The biggest two focal areas for GIS in the U.S. are Washington, DC, and Denver, Colorado. However, since most counties, cities, and states use GIS as a tool, there are GIS positions almost everywhere. GIS jobs vary greatly in the quality of work (data development people, mappers, jacks-of-all-trades) and in the compensation.

Learn problem-solving skills, how to effectively use available resources, and critical-thinking skills. Being strong in these three areas is vital to any successful career.

Write, write, and write. Most entry- and intermediate-level GIS jobs require little-to-no writing. You will often spend all of your time developing databases, making maps, or programming. However, being able to effectively communicate both verbally and in writing becomes much more important as you progress through your career. Finding alternative ways to develop effective communication skills is crucial to career development.

Be true to yourself, and approach your life and career passionately. Most of the people at FMRI do this, and it is, in part, what makes FMRI a special place. Since I worked as a contractor-consultant for several years, I saw many people who put money first. Although money and security are very important, believing in what you are doing is also very important. In Washington, DC, I knew people who would switch jobs every six to twelve months just to make more money. These people often had very low job satisfaction because they based their decisions solely on a financial bottom line. Many people at FMRI have made significant financial sacrifices because they believe in their work. It seems that the level of job satisfaction here is much higher that what I observed working in Washington, DC.

Finally, search for balance in your life. It will be much easier to like your job and career if the rest of your life is balanced.

FWC Facts:
The life expectancy for Gulf sturgeon is 20-42 years. The oldest age documented for a tagged and recaptured Suwannee River Gulf sturgeon is about 27-28 years.

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