Geography student competes at national conference

Stephanie Toone

Four years ago, Louisville graduate student Rhonda Pfaff thought she knew the path she wanted to take. She wanted to experience the exciting world of a television broadcaster.

With a double major in Government and Mass Communications, she was well on her way. But in the first semester of her sophomore year, her aspirations changed. After taking a required general education course in geography, Pfaff found her calling.

“Everything in this world deals with geography,” she said.

Her newfound appreciation for the subject led her to more than just a change in her educational path.

This summer, Pfaff was the only student from Kentucky to attend the prestigious Geographic Information Systems (GIS) conference. Only 64 students were selected from more than 300 applicants across the nation.

Chris Groves, associate professor of geology and geography, helped initiate Pfaff’s interest. Groves noticed the former journalism student had a knack for geography.

And he saw what set her apart from other students when his research group worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service. He said Pfaff’s potential wasn’t shown so much in technical skills, but in the “aspect of her nature.”

“I look at students who are conscientious, cautious and pay attention to details,” he said.

When the opportunity came to participate in the GIS conference, Pfaff didn’t hesitate to take it.

GIS is a major innovator in using software and computers to leverage the fundamental principle of geography – that location is important in people’s lives.

It helps farmers grow larger, healthier crops, gives marketers prospects for customers, helps place new businesses and finds environmental degradations.

The conference is very selective. GIS students are chosen according to their experience in GIS and promise in developing their skills.

Groves believes Pfaff was selected for more than just these requirements.

“Rhonda was selected because of her work in GIS, her initiative,” he said. “Her resume exceeds those of other undergraduates.”

The conference, held in July in San Diego, was attended by more than 1,100 people.

Pfaff learned how to install network calls through wireless Internet access. The conference also gave her the opportunity to meet the founder and president of GIS, Jack Dangermond.

The GIS conference also gave Pfaff great career opportunities. ESRI, the company that created GIS, is scheduling an interview with her.

She may not be under television lights any longer, but Pfaff is well on her way to changing the world through geography.

For more information on GIS, go to its Web site at

Reach Stephanie Toone at [email protected]