Tufts University’s Master of Science in Conservation Medicine (MCM) program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine is revolutionizing the way students approach conservation challenges. While preparing veterinarians, physicians, ecologists, and conservation professionals to tackle urgent global issues, the program has incorporated a unique requirement: a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) course.

The MCM program, dedicated to addressing critical planetary issues such as habitat conservation, emerging diseases, biodiversity loss, and climate change, recognizes that these challenges are inherently spatial in nature. Carolyn Talmadge, Data Lab services manager and course director, believes that GIS and spatial analysis skills are essential for understanding the scope of these problems.

Initially, the program offered only workshops and guest lectures on GIS. However, Talmadge, a GIS specialist at Tufts, recognized the need for a comprehensive GIS course tailored to conservation medicine. In 2016, she introduced the semester-long “GIS for Conservation Medicine” course, which has since become one of the program’s most popular and highly-rated offerings.

Empowering Future Conservation Leaders

Talmadge’s teaching philosophy centers on inspiring students to see GIS as a powerful tool for solving real-world conservation problems. “My goal for the class is to first provide the motivation for learning GIS before teaching the skill itself,” she states, emphasizing that GIS can be both accessible and enjoyable. Under her guidance, students have found positions with prestigious organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution, MIT, Harvard University, the World Bank Group, and the United Nations, among others.

Former colleague Madeline Wrable, now a solutions engineer for imagery and remote sensing at Esri, praised Talmadge’s dedication to her students’ success. Wrable attests that Talmadge “teaches GIS like someone who has found their passion in life” and offers unwavering support throughout their learning journeys.

Building a Comprehensive Curriculum

Recognizing that students in the MCM program possess varying levels of technical expertise, Talmadge tailors her course to cater to diverse backgrounds. She uses the One Health approach, emphasizing the interconnectedness of people, animals, plants, and the environment, to demonstrate the broad applications of GIS in environmental and public health.

Talmadge believes in making GIS accessible through hands-on activities that reinforce concepts learned in lectures. These activities cover various scales, addressing challenges from local neighborhoods to global issues. Using real-case scenarios and datasets, students engage in purposeful learning, understanding how GIS can be applied to their research and career interests.

Talmadge’s course also places a strong emphasis on cartography, design, and effective communication of spatial data. Students use tools like ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Pro to create high-quality maps, manage databases, and perform spatial analysis. One standout assignment involves collecting field data using ArcGIS Survey123, enabling students to explore topics like wildlife sightings and habitat degradation.

The culmination of the course is a GIS analysis project where students choose a topic and create informative posters. Many of these posters have garnered recognition at the Esri User Conference Map Gallery competition, further highlighting the practical skills acquired in the course.

Looking to the Future

Talmadge is continuously looking for ways to enhance her course and the integration of GIS in conservation efforts. She believes that incorporating GPS data collection and drone technologies will expand the application of GIS in conservation. As GIS becomes more integrated into the practice of conservation, it holds the promise of making the results of field studies accessible to the public and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration.

In summary, Tufts University’s MCM program is not only shaping the future of conservation medicine but also nurturing a new generation of conservation leaders armed with GIS skills. Carolyn Talmadge’s dedication to inspiring and equipping her students with GIS expertise is creating a ripple effect in the field of conservation, where spatial analysis and data-driven decision-making are becoming increasingly indispensable. As GIS continues to evolve, so does the potential for innovative solutions to the pressing challenges our planet faces.