Sam Olivares-Mejia stands in front of a green bush, smiling.

Where They’re Headed: Sam Olivares-Mejia ‘22

The environmental studies major is working as a GIS assistant, analyzing data from 11 national parks across seven states.

This fall, Sam Olivares-Mejia ’22 will be using the skills she learned at Haverford as a GIS assistant with the Sonoran Desert Network, located in Tucson, AZ. The environmental studies major, who minored in biology, will be using a spatial data analysis software (Geographic Information Systems, or GIS) to produce datasets, and conduct data engineering on geospatial databases.

The Sonoran Desert Network uses GIS to analyze data on wildlife, plants, air, and climate, for use in preserving and managing 11 national parks across seven states. Olivares-Mejia’s position is part of the National Park Service’s Scientists in Parks program, which provides internships and opportunities for research, data analysis, conservation work, and professional experience.

“I learned about the opportunity through ESA [Ecological Society of America], as I subscribe to several of their mailing lists, particularly aimed at students and ecologists of color,” she said. “I attended one of their webinars over winter break and learned about the program and decided to apply!”

Olivares-Mejia joined those mailing lists because of her lifelong interest in the environment and public engagement, which was nurtured by environmental studies classes at Haverford. In particular, Bryn Mawr Associate Professor of Biology and computational ecologist Sydne Record attracted Olivares-Mejia to the specific field.

“I’ve taken several courses with Dr. Record, including ‘Introduction to Computational Biology’ and ‘Ecological Modeling,’ and was also a part of the 2021 cohort of Harvard Forests’ REU in Ecology, where I conducted research that introduced me to GIS,” said Olivares-Mejia. “I continued this research over the past year on disturbance history of forested sites within the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), which became the center of my senior thesis.”

Her time with Record was critical for giving her skills in R programming, GIS, open data, and geodatabases—skills which are now critical to her position with the Sonoran Desert Network.

Taking her own experience into account, Olivares-Mejia reflected on her lean towards computer science by advising that students step outside their comfort zone.

“I initially was afraid of programming and computer science in general, but am now super interested in data management after taking courses in [it],” she said.

Additionally, she suggested using all available resources, such as support networks and listservs, as tools for finding opportunities. “In general,” she said, “don’t underestimate yourself, and reach out and ask as many questions as you can!”

“Where They’re Headed” is a blog series chronicling the post-collegiate plans of recent Haverford graduates.