The first cohort of students will enter The University of New Mexico's doctoral program in Geography this fall, a new degree that will be offered jointly with New Mexico State University. This will be the first Ph.D. program in Geography offered at any public or private institution of higher education in the state.

Geography, to many people, may mean pointing a country out on a map in elementary school and learning the capital city and chief exports. But it’s really a whole lot more than answers to a trivia quiz.

“Geography is a discipline that is poorly known in the U.S., even though geographic thought is embedded in many aspects of our society, ranging from decisions about where to open new businesses, to how to manage environmental resources and pollution,” admitted Chris Duvall, chair of the UNM Department of Geography and Environmental Studies.

Basically, geographers study the distribution of things on the Earth’s surface and analyze how those distributions came to be and how they affect current and future conditions.

The new program is the only doctoral program in Geography in New Mexico, and meets demand within the state, Duvall noted, adding that so far, grads leave from the master’s program to pursue their doctorate elsewhere and many students have full-time careers that prevent them from moving out of state to pursue a Ph.D. 

“All the neighboring states have geography Ph.D. programs, and we’ve lost students to those states,” he noted.

“But we offer something unique. We emphasize both basic and applied knowledge, in other words, both academic theory and real-world application, while other programs emphasize one or the other. We require interdisciplinarity in terms of coursework requirements, while other programs don’t. And we focus on complex, dryland landscapes,” Duvall pointed out.

UNM teamed with NMSU to enable a more robust program, with a bigger faculty and a greater range of expertise, classes, and opportunities to get involved with research work, Duvall said.  

Despite the partnership between the two universities, students will not need to constantly commute up and down I-25. Students select a home campus, most likely where their principal academic advisor is a professor and many classes will be available remotely, a process that is being hurried by the current pandemic, he noted.

Originally from southern California, Ria Mukerji is coming to UNM from Louisiana State University where she graduated with her M.S. degree in Geography.

Ria Mukerji
Ria Mukerji

“Even though I consider myself a human geographer, I have always been interested in the intersections of the social sciences and hard sciences and between theory and applied practice. Both the graduate students I met and the faculty were truly amazing and were a huge part of my decision. I'm super stoked to explore all the outdoor delights around New Mexico and Albuquerque … While I'm sure there are challenges that come from being in the first cohort, it also gives us some agency in helping to shape the program and that's an opportunity that I'm excited to take part in,” Mukerji said.

She has read work by UNM assistant professor Ben Warner and is looking forward to working with him on the political ecologies of climate change adaptation, transboundary water governance issues and vulnerability to flooding.

Rowan Leigh Converse
Rowan Leigh Converse

Rowan Leigh Converse of Albuquerque finished her M.S. in Geography at UNM this spring and started serving as the lab manager at the newly-established Center for the Advancement of Spatial Informatics Research and Education (ASPIRE) in the Interdisciplinary Sciences Co-op, housed in the new PAIS building. Over the summer, she’ll work on coordinating various research projects, including some drone imaging work.

“I chose the UNM geography program because of the strong relationships I’ve built with the faculty during my time in the master’s program. At ASPIRE we are building a wildlife research unit that perfectly encompasses my interests given my background in wildlife biology. It overall just seemed like the right fit,” Converse said.

Daniel Beene is currently a full-time staffer at the Community Health Program in the College of Pharmacy at UNM.

Daniel Beene
Daniel Beene

“I get the feeling that I’m part of GES at a really special time,” Beene said. “The faculty are engaged and their areas of interest are diverse, and their general willingness to interact with and teach students has created a tremendous setting for research and learning. And beyond all of that, I’ve become close friends with a lot of people in the department. My decision to stick with UNM extends beyond GES, though. My work with the Community Environmental Health Program has honed my research interests surrounding the legacy of uranium mining in and around the Navajo Nation. Geography as a discipline provides a rich critical and theoretical underpinning for that research. As a trainee of the NIEHS Superfund Research Program, I’m afforded a lot of opportunities to conduct research, secure funding, and meet fellow scholars both during and after my doctoral work.”

Ramona Malczynski has been taking graduate-level courses in the Geography department for the last couple years, noting, “I was deeply impressed by the knowledge and passion of the professors at UNM. They introduced me to completely new perspectives on Geography and environmental science even though I had been studying these topics for six years in higher education. Also, they showed genuine interest in me and my peers and I felt that attending UNM I would have access to great research and mentorship opportunities. Finally, I was offered a graduate assistantship which makes it possible for me to complete a degree full-time while working on teaching and research at UNM."

Graduates can go on to a range of careers.

“I see the work opportunities that come from holding a Ph.D. as an alternative way to pursue public service, whether through continuing to conduct community-based research at the local level and teaching at a university or working for an NGO or a think tank in private industry. Part of the reason Geography is such a cool field to study is that it allows us to build up so many different sets of skills across the hard and social sciences and pursue such a wide variety of career paths,” Mukerji said.

Converse hopes to work in research in an academic setting, focusing on leveraging remote sensing and GIS technologies for natural resources management, especially wildlife management.

Beene would like to go on to teach and do research: “My decision will mainly hinge on what path allows me to keep doing meaningful work with underserved populations.”

“I have always wanted to be an educator and am really passionate about teaching students about environmental and social justice and politics,” Malczynski said. “I hope I have the opportunity to teach at a minority-serving university like UNM. I also want to produce high-quality research that combines academia with activism by generating knowledge with various communities that promote and develop our struggle for social and environmental justice.”

People use geography every day in their lives whether they know it or not. The graduates coming from the Geography doctoral program will help them.

“Many decisions in our society are based on geographic thinking and geographic skills. I haven’t mentioned geospatial technology yet, but anyone with a smartphone or an internet connection has massive amounts of geographic data and powerful methods of analysis available. How many people use Google Maps or a comparable app to navigate? How many people explore the world via satellite images, such as anyone can get on Google Earth, such as governments use to spy, and such as businesses use to identify valuable resources? These technologies require skilled people to create, upgrade, and maintain them. For these technologies to improve our lives we also must have people who think about how maps and geographic data can help or harm society, and develop ways to minimize risks. Beyond this technological element—which is why many undergraduates and graduate students study geography—we need geographic thinkers to analyze problems ranging from water resources management to public health. We have the faculty and students working in all these fields,” Duvall concluded.

(Photo above) Assistant Professor Ben Warner, left, and recent M.S. graduate Anthony Meluso conduct field research on water management among farmers in northern Mexico.