• Real-World Geography: Brian Lee

    Real-World Geography: How people use geography and the geographic perspective in their everyday lives and real-world careers.

    Illustration by Mary Crooks

    By Stuart Thornton

    Tuesday, January 18, 2011

    Brian is a staff scientist for CH2M HILL, a global engineering and design firm based in Englewood, Colorado.

    Brian is a wetlands biologist who works with CH2M HILL’s geographic information system (GIS) team. Together, they determine the best sites for renewable energy projects, such as wind farms.

    EARLY WORK

    Growing up in rural Mason, Michigan, Brian was exposed to the outdoors at a young age. “I grew up in the countryside,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in nature and biological processes. Basically, I guess what kick-started some of the interest [in biology] is I used to build birdhouses in my dad’s shop.”

    Brian learned about how people manage the environment by interacting with his uncle, a farmer. “That probably had a pretty big influence on me, because I would hang out there a lot and see how they managed the cattle and help with the cows,” he says. “I kind of understood the connection to the earth through the agricultural practices they were doing.”

    Brian originally studied information technology while attending the University of Colorado at Boulder. Later, he focused on biology. The switch in majors was due in part to his experiences during Semester at Sea, a study-abroad program.

    “I was able to really see what people are doing to the environment and how we are really overusing the planet’s capability to sustain ourselves,” he says.

    MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

    “I think ... going to see new places and really getting to know places that no one else gets to see.”

    MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

    Brian says it is difficult to keep up with ever-changing regulations. National, state, and local regulations determine what type of structures can be built in a specific zone.

    “I have to know the environmental regulations regarding wetlands and know how to advise the client with how things should be done,” he says. “And how the regulators are likely going to respond to what they see constructed.”

    HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

    Engineers “treat geography as a constraint and a resource,” Brian says “We look at it as something in context with the environmental and the social landscape.”

    GEO-CONNECTION

    Brian says geography is critical to his work from start to finish. “Basically, I use geography before I even go out to the field to look at the site or do a field study of any kind,” he says. “We get on the computer and look at topographic maps, aerial maps. We use geographic information systems (GIS) like ArcGIS and AutoCAD to map out what we are looking at.”

    In the field, Brian uses a global positioning system (GPS) to document the outer boundaries of wetlands and streams.

    When working with a developer to create a renewable energy project, Brian says the geography of the proposed site is very important. “We take a place or location in context with what a developer wants to place on top of it,” he says.

    SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . BIOLOGIST

    Brian suggests taking a walk with a botanist, someone who studies plants, or an ornithologist, someone who studies birds.

    “Some of the helpful stuff that I’ve done over the past few years . . . that I wish I had done more as a younger person would be to really get out with people who are really experts in their field,” he says. “Get out with a birder that really knows the local birds and can teach you. You get binoculars, and you just walk around with them identifying things, looking at your books.”

    GET INVOLVED

    Brian says that volunteering for a trail-maintenance project is a great way to unearth enthusiasm for the outdoors. “I think the key to create interest,” he says, “is when people are really enjoying being in nature.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    aerial imagery Noun

    photographs, maps, and other visual information based on visual data taken from high in the atmosphere, usually in a plane.

    agriculture Noun

    the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

    Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture
    ArcGIS Noun

    Geographic information software created by the company ESRI.

    AutoCAD Noun

    software program used by engineers, geographers, and other professionals to help design and model land areas and build infrastructure.

    biologist Noun

    scientist who studies living organisms.

    biology Noun

    study of living things.

    botanist Noun

    person who studies plants.

    cattle Noun

    cows and oxen.

    critical Adjective

    very important.

    engineering Noun

    the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

    enthusiastic Adjective

    excited.

    environment Noun

    conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

    farmer Noun

    person who cultivates land and raises crops.

    geographic information system (GIS) Noun

    any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: GIS (geographic information system)
    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    Global Positioning System (GPS) Noun

    system of satellites and receiving devices used to determine the location of something on Earth.

    ornithology Noun

    study of the biology and behavior of birds.

    regulation Noun

    rule or law.

    renewable energy Noun

    energy obtained from sources that are virtually inexhaustible and replenish naturally over small time scales relative to the human life span.

    resource Noun

    available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

    rural Adjective

    having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.

    topographic map Noun

    map showing natural and human-made features of the land, and marked by contour lines showing elevation.

    unearth Verb

    to dig up.

    wetland Noun

    area of land covered by shallow water or saturated by water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: wetland
    wind energy Noun

    energy produced by the movement of air, and converted into electricity.

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