Let Go of Failure
GIS Project Manager
Q: What field of science do you work in?
I am a Geographic Information Systems Project Manager at The Trust for Public Land, a national environmental nonprofit. At TPL I mostly work with our Climate-Smart Cities Program. I help build web-based planning tools that allow our city partners to visualize and evaluate how climate change may affect their communities. Using the data from our tool, cities can prioritize areas for green infrastructure implementation to minimize climate change impacts.
GIS is a field that I fell into, one that I didn’t know I wanted to pursue as a career until much, much later in life. In my teens, I wanted to be a marine biologist. I had a great internship with some graduate students studying the endangered Kemp's Ridley Turtle. My job was to sort through the stomach contents of the turtles that had died and classify what I found. This is crab shell, this is plastic, who knows what this is? The research was intended to figure out if what the turtles were eating — things like plastic — were causing them to die or if it might be because of other causes.
Later, when I went to college, I decided I wanted to be a field scientist. I went to Tanzania to study wildlife ecology as a part of a semester abroad program. I spent six months in various parks learning methods for studying wildlife. After this experience, I wanted to be the next Jane Goodall instead of the next Sylvia Earle.
I was first exposed to GIS work after I graduated. I moved to San Francisco and became a field botanist. I monitored endangered plants and mapped invasive species, hiking all over the Marin Headlands and the closed watershed just outside of San Francisco. All the field data we gathered had to be put into a GIS database, not only for making pretty maps but also for analysis. We examined the data to figure out what the best habitat was for certain endangered species and what habitats we should target for conservation. I found the analysis fascinating. This was a turning point in my career, where I transitioned from wanting to be a field scientist to wanting to focus on GIS. I have worked in the GIS field for 20 years now and still love it.
Q: What inspired you as a child to get involved in science?
I first realized that I loved science as a teen when I spent my summers at a science-focused camp in Florida — Sea Camp. I took marine biology classes like Ichthyology and Shark Biology and went scuba diving, snorkeling, and windsurfing. I loved this place! It is where I began to develop an interest in science and developed a passion for conservation. If you asked my 13-year-old self where I would be, I think I would have said a marine biologist like Sylvia Earle.
Q: What obstacles have you found to be the most difficult along your path?
Like most women, probably, I have struggled with the enduring double standard with how women and men are treated in the workplace. Luckily, I have mostly experienced it from people outside the organizations I have worked for. I find that I must be more mindful in how I respond than my male colleagues. In general, I think direct responses from women are not as well received. Also, there have been many, many meetings where I have been addressed in somewhat demeaning manner. I guess I would call it passive misogyny? For example, I was the project manager for a large yearlong project and was presenting to the clients on what we were going to do for them. The response? "Well, kiddo, I think that's a great idea." I was 39 at the time. Not the biggest deal, but I do think if the presentation had been given by a 39-year-old man, the response would have been different.
Q: Have there been any roadblocks along the way that may have pushed you in a different direction?
I wouldn't call it a "roadblock" because having a family is the best decision I have made in my life, but there is no denying that being a working parent has influenced my professional life and pushed me in directions that I might not have chosen if I didn't have kids. For example, my passion for much of my younger life was field work, which requires long hours and a lot of time away from home. I've placed my family's interests over my own, in some respects — a decision I'm completely comfortable with.
Q: Is there advice you would give to those following in this path?
Yes! We need more women scientists! My practical advice for women who want to enter the GIS field is to learn to code. My life advice is to try new things and don't pay too much attention to short-term success or failure. As long as you are doing something interesting and challenging, you are growing and spending your limited time on this planet well.
Lara is a GIS professional and environmental scientist with over 20 years of experience. Since joining TPL in 2015, Lara has worked with a team of GIS staff and consultants to implement cutting-edge methodologies and tools for conservation projects ranging from informing multi-jurisdictional trail planning to modeling efforts that make cities “climate-smart” to identifying priority areas for landscape-scale conservation plans. Prior to coming to TPL, Lara worked for The Nature Conservancy as a Director of Conservation Operations and GIS Manager focusing on wildfire planning and large landscape conservation analyses. She has a Master's in Environmental Science and Management from the Bren School at the University of California – Santa Barbara.
Words: Lara Miller