Mapping a Career

Katie Ertell

Class of 2012
GIS Analyst, South Carolina Emergency Management Division
Columbia, SC (2014-2015)
GIS Specialist and Hurricane Liaison Team, FEMA Division IV
Atlanta, GA (2015-Present)

Katie Ertell loves being in the action. In her first job as a GIS analyst for the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, she spent much of the time creating maps that helped the state make critical decisions in times of emergency.  Now Katie works as a GIS Specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Atlanta, Georgia.  She puts her geography skills to work daily and her meteorology comes into play during storm season when she is pulled into the Hurricane Liaison Team.

Katie’s background in meteorology, combined with her knowledge of Geographic Information Systems, made her an ideal candidate for these jobs.  Her move to FEMA followed her busy year as a GIS Analyst, which she started immediately after finishing her work for a master’s degree in geography at the University of South Carolina.

“The connection between the geography and meteorology programs at Valpo is what allowed me to find this little professional niche that I love,” says Katie, who majored in meteorology at Valpo but fell in love with GIS after her faculty advisor suggested that she take Valpo’s introductory GIS course during her junior year.

“It’s such a close-knit department, and they really care about their students’ success,” Katie says. “Every single semester, they focused a lot of attention on me and what courses would be most useful to me. Even though it’s a small department, there are many choices. My advisor had a sense that GIS would be interesting to me and she was right.

“It’s thanks to Bharath Ganesh Babu, my GIS professor, that I even knew my current field existed! He helped me understand the power of GIS to assist in interpreting and visualizing data used in decision-making.”

As the sole GIS analyst for South Carolina’s emergency-management team, Katie mapped information that decision-makers need to determine how to respond to whatever emergencies arise.

“I input data into map form to provide a better picture of what’s happening in our state. During a storm, for instance, I might use demographic information to show who’s affected. During an ice storm, I mapped power outages.”

Because so many of the emergencies affecting the Southeast are weather-related, Katie’s Valpo meteorology major is invaluable. “Understanding how storms work is essential in many of the situations we’re dealing with,” she notes.

But she also credits her geography courses, especially field work, with helping her prepare for the work she loves: using mapping technology to understand the potential impact of events like natural disasters on real people.

“We were encouraged to think about how people experience a place,” she says, recalling a field course conducted over spring break on Hawaii’s Big Island. “We got to get out there and see the cultural side.”