Intern name: Ben Carlson
Major (s): Environmental Studies, Biology minor
Title: Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Project Intern
Place of internship: The Nature Conservancy
How did you find out about the internship and what was the application process like?
I work in the Environmental Studies department at St. John's as the GIS TA, thus I work closely with many of the staff at the St. John's Arboretum. The Nature Conservancy has a branch office here at St. John's, so they also often work with the Arboretum. When Matt Graeve from The Nature Conservancy needed someone to work on a couple of mapping and GIS projects, he came to Arboretum director Tom Kroll, who then referred me to Matt. I contacted Matt and agreed to help him with his projects if I could count the work as an internship for credit. He agreed, so I defined my internship goals, filled out the learning contract, and began working on projects.
What were some of the internship highlights?
For two weeks in August, I spent four days doing field work, eradicating invasive plant species like Canada Thistle and Purple Loosestrife, on some Nature Conservancy owned preserves in West Central Minnesota. I really enjoyed this chance to be outdoors experiencing land management practices first hand, and it allowed me to apply my work with GIS to actual situations, as I was also involved in collecting and using geographic data that I use in the office. Meanwhile, I was working on a project to document the history of prescribed prairie burns on TNC preserves in Minnesota. As I sorted through files of old burning records and compiled the data into a GIS database, I saw the history of prescribed burning in Minnesota unfold before my eyes, all the way back to the very first prescribed burn in America back in 1962! This was fascinating to me, as I have volunteered with the Nature Conservancy and St. John's Arboretum to conduct prescribed burns in the past, and find it a very interesting land management practice.
What was a typical day like? What were some of your major responsibilities?
Except when I was doing field work, I would arrive at the office and begin working on one of several GIS projects, which included sorting historical paper records of land management practices, such as prescribed fires on Nature Conservancy preserves, entering data from these or other records into a GIS database, setting up and formatting the databases to store this data, and even cross-referencing and analyzing historical aerial photos or management maps of preserves, amongst other things. This all involved a lot of office work, both on the computer and analyzing files of reports. The work was rather monotonous at times, but also very cognitive.
What were some of the challenges of your internship?
I worked independently for the most part, so much of the work that I did was self-directed. I was given a problem to solve or some information to organize, and I had to figure out how to do the task. I fortunately had plenty of background in the type of work I was doing, thanks to my environmental studies courses, but I had to learn many new skills by trial and error in order to solve problems that I came upon.
What did you learn?
I learned many new skills pertaining to GIS work and geographic data management that will continue to be useful as I continue to use GIS in the future. Also, through field work and the specific projects that I worked on, I was able to learn and apply many principles and methods of land management that will also continue to be useful. More importantly, I learned a lot about what careers in GIS and land management are like, thanks to my own work as well as visiting other people in the field. I now know a little more what to expect if I choose to go into this field.
What advice would you give other students interested in internships?
Don't be afraid to set up an internship position yourself. Many organizations may not have official internship positions available, but are nonetheless willing to create a work-study position for ambitious students who can help them work on a project or two. I would also advise that you search in a field that you could see yourself working in or enjoy, and use your work as a litmus test to see if you enjoy working in that field. If you can't find an internship in a field that you are interested, try to contact an organization in that field and see if you can set something up.