• Real-World Geography: Veronica Cedillos

    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

    Veronica is a project manager for GeoHazards International, a nonprofit organization assisting communities vulnerable to geologic hazards, such as earthquakes. GeoHazards International is based in Palo Alto, California.

    Veronica is currently working on a tsunami-preparedness plan for the city of Padang, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

    EARLY WORK

    Veronica grew up in El Paso, Texas, where she always had an interest in math and science. “I’ve liked math and science since I was young,” she says. “I don’t think I quite moved into engineering until the end of high school.”

    Veronica was introduced to engineering by her father, a civil engineer who worked for the City of El Paso. A civil engineer designs or supervises the construction of public works projects, such as roads or canals. “So I kind of had an idea of what an engineer would do,” Veronica says, “and I always found it really interesting.”

    After a year at the University of Texas at El Paso, Veronica transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At MIT, she received a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering. She continued her education with a master’s degree in structural engineering from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

    After college, Veronica worked for a nonprofit organization in India. There, she researched the earthquake-resistant features of traditional architecture in the Himalayan foothills.

    “That was amazing for me, because that was my first exposure to that type of work,” she says. “That was another big moment in my life in that I realized that was really what I wanted to do, and that was really exciting to me. Not just having my field of study that I found really interesting but also having that other human element to it that was really important to me as well.”

    MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

    “It’s really, really fascinating to me to be meeting people with very different perspectives . . . all really somehow tied into these issues we are trying to solve,” Veronica says. “It really gives me an appreciation for the complexity of the problems. Not just the technical aspects, which is obviously very interesting to me, but also the social and political implications of trying to solve these problems and what it really means for the communities.”

    MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

    “Just trying to put all the pieces together,” Veronica says. “We’re really trying to take what we know scientifically or technically and really apply it to make a change.”

    HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

    Veronica says any definition of geography must include both the physical and cultural aspects of the discipline.

    “I feel like geography . . . has really helped me learn so much more about the differences, but also the fundamental similarities” between people and communities, she says.

    GEO-CONNECTION

    Veronica says maps have been helpful in trying to develop a tsunami-preparedness plan for Padang. Padang is a large city in western Indonesia with a population of more than 800,000. In the past, Padang has been hit with tsunamis as high as 10 meters (30 feet).

    Maps and data provided by geographic information system (GIS) software have helped Veronica and other engineers determine different factors that Padang’s leaders must prepare for: when to evacuate people, how to build structures that can withstand the power of a tsunami, or what the economic damage to the community may be.

    “Maps, such as those illustrating the expected tsunami inundation throughout the city, have been crucial in identifying particularly vulnerable areas and are helping in developing appropriate tsunami evacuation solutions.”

    SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ENGINEER

    “I think any science or math program is very good,” Veronica says. “You need to really have a strong, fundamental base of science and math.”

    In addition, Veronica suggests volunteering. “In terms of structural engineering, I think it’s great to be involved with organizations like Habitat For Humanity, where you can go out and build for a day,” she says.

    GET INVOLVED

    Veronica recommends looking at the geology that surrounds you.

    “You can drive up and down California,” for example, “and actually see some of the faults.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    appreciation Noun

    recognition of something's value.

    architecture Noun

    style and design of buildings or open spaces.

    assist Noun

    to help or support.

    city Noun

    large settlement with a high population density.

    civil engineer Noun

    person who works in the design and construction of buildings, roads, and other public facilities.

    construction Noun

    arrangement of different parts.

    data Plural Noun

    (singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

    earthquake Noun

    the sudden shaking of Earth's crust caused by the release of energy along fault lines or from volcanic activity.

    economic Adjective

    having to do with money.

    engineer Noun

    person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

    engineering Noun

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

    evacuate Verb

    to leave or remove from a dangerous place.

    fascinate Verb

    to cause an interest in.

    fault Noun

    a crack in the Earth's crust where there has been movement.

    foothill Noun

    hill at the base of a mountain.

    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
    geologic Adjective

    having to do with the physical formations of the Earth.

    geology Noun

    study of the physical history of the Earth, its composition, its structure, and the processes that form and change it.

    map Noun

    symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: map
    nonprofit organization Noun

    business that uses surplus funds to pursue its goals, not to make money.

    resistant Adjective

    able to withstand the effects of a substance, material, or behavior.

    software Noun

    electronic programs of code that tell computers what to do.

    structural Adjective

    having to do with the frame or support of a construction such as a bridge or building.

    tradition Noun

    beliefs, customs, and cultural characteristics handed down from one generation to the next.

    tsunami Noun

    ocean waves triggered by an earthquake, volcano, or other movement of the ocean floor.

    volunteer Noun

    person who performs work without being paid.

    vulnerable Adjective

    capable of being hurt.

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