*This story originally appeared in the Virginia Gazette on February 19, 2020.
Carter Christopher, Ph.D., and deputy to the geographer of the United States at the U.S. State Department, and 2001 graduate of the College of William & Mary, recently came back to campus to deliver a lecture on what is involved in being a geographer and geospatial scientist in the 21st century.
Christopher’s lecture at Blow Hall on Friday was hosted by Professor Brian Blouet, Huby Professor of Geography and International Education, Carter’s erstwhile teacher at the college; and Shannon White, GIS Certificate Coordinator for William & Mary’s Center for Geospatial Analysis.
In his lecture, Christopher pointed out the discipline of geography and geospatial science ― whether in academia, industry or government — are in the midst of disruption. Changes in technology and the environment are reverberating through the profession. The technological advances present vast opportunities, he said, and new frontiers of science, research and analytics.
“The global changes we are experiencing with climate change, human migration, urbanization and societal technologies, such as artificial intelligence and virtual connectedness, are likely to radically reshape what we understand about the world,” he said. “Additionally, the technological advances in the geospatial industry are putting geographers in a unique position to understand and explain the human and natural dimensions of our planet better than anyone else.”
He explained geography, as a social science, isn’t grounded in the kinds of fixed truths as is a physical science such as physics or chemistry. Rather, it seeks to describe the world through the frame of places and people, and the relationship between the two, and these relationships can and do change over time.
“The 21st century will see two a major revolutions: the first half will be a data revolution, where we brace for and eventually come to harness the vast of amounts of location-based data available for analysis; the second half will be a revolution in understanding of our human and natural world by applying new analytic techniques.”
Christopher, in his capacity as deputy to Lee Schwartz, leading authority on geography at the State Department, is active in international organizations.
One of these is the Geography 2050 symposium, an ongoing dialogue among leaders from academia, government, industry and the social sector to facilitate discussion of the major forces that will shape our planet’s future, he said.
I asked Christopher whether his education at William & Mary was a factor in his success during his professional career.
“Absolutely,” he said. “William & Mary taught me so much beyond academics that I never appreciated at the time. I probably didn’t even know I was learning it. I credit some of my professional success to my coursework in the School of Education at William & Mary. It gave me the foundational knowledge for how to communicate to different audiences, tailor messages and speak confidently in front of a group of people.
“On the flip side,” he continued, “my major in government taught me so much about critical thinking, diversity of thought and perspective, and research and analysis around a hypothesis. These were foundational skills, on top of academics, that I’ve carried with me and continued to hone since my time at William & Mary. Of course, Professor Bluet’s geography classes have always stuck with me in a special way.”
Christopher doesn’t find working for the government boring or mundane. As part of his job, he often travels overseas and around the country.
“I am a fan of jazz music,” he said. “I always try to see an after-hours jazz show wherever I am. In the last six months, I have seen jazz in Kathmandu, Nepal, in a medieval beer-aging cellar in Heidelberg, Germany, and in the crypt of a 1,000-year-old church in London. Unique exemplars of how and why geography matters.”
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com