This week’s student profile is with Sanober Mirza, a senior Geography major and Geography Club President. Sanober works in Professor Erika Marin-Spiotta’s Biogeography-Biogeochemistry Lab and is an Undergraduate Research Scholar. She is interviewed here by Cartography/GIS master’s student Alicia Iverson.
Can you describe where you work?
I work in Erika Marin-Spiotta’s Lab, which is the Biogeography-Biogeochemistry Lab. We’re physical geographers in our research. We have several different projects because of the different graduate students in the Department, but my main focus is biogeochemistry and how tropical land-use change and other aspects of human activities affect soil nutrient cycling and different aspects of the biosphere. I’ve done several different projects with Erika, and a lot of mine have been about soil carbon and nitrogen, and looking at how land-use change, such as deforestation or reforestation, can affect that nutrient cycling through forest succession.
How did you get involved with the research?
I was involved in the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program my freshman year. I interviewed with Professor Jack Williams and he referred me to Erika. Erika was willing enough to give me a chance and so after my freshmen year in the lab, I worked two summers in the BioGeography Lab, and I’m still working there now. My whole undergraduate experience has been with the lab and I’m very lucky for that.
I began working for credit my freshman year. Over the summer, we applied to a grant program through the honors college that helped me to fund living in Madison while I participated in the research. Sophomore year, we applied for a university research fellowship, and so I was compensated through that and I was also taking credit. I am now working on my senior honors thesis, so I am received 3 credits per semester for my last year here at UW.
How did you first decide to apply to the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program?
I was told about it at SOAR. They try to encourage research in all forms, so I luckily got to learn about many types of research through my seminar while doing physical science work. I do know another geography major–Robert, who works in the Cart Lab—who was in the same program.
I knew I was going to be an environmental sciences major coming into college, which I still am. Geography was not on my radar at all. But ending up in the Biogeography Lab definitely converted me to a geography kid.
How did working in the BioGeography Lab convert you to geography? What was it that attracted you?
I also took Professor Mason’s Geography 127–which is an introductory physical environment course–and I really loved that class. So I talked to Professor Mason and Erika about doing both environmental science and geography. Something that really attracted me to geography was that, yes, I’m a physical geography researcher, but geography as a field has a lot of humanistic and social interactions. In environmental sciences, I took a lot of raw science for my first two years, like chemistry, biology, physics, so having that other social aspect really brought me to geography. Also, the skills you learn in geography–GIS and mapping– gives you the tools to actually work with the physical environment on large scales.
You said you got a lot of your science core within the environmental sciences program. Do you think that geography as a program has those strong fundamentals, given it is so interdisciplinary?
I think so. I definitely think the physical geography courses offered here are a lot more specific, which is nice compared to Introductory Organic Chemistry. The introductory course I took with Professor Mason showed me every aspect of the physical environment–weather, soils, volcanoes, everything you could possibly think of. And from there I learned what I was interested in and got them narrowed down. I kind of fell in love with geography.
Is the Research Program still in action?
Yes. It is for undergraduates for the first two years. Upperclassmen have the opportunity to work as program Fellows and lead weekly seminars with the scholars, which I currently do. Professors often post all opportunities and positions so that new and current students who are interested in geography can get their feet in the door.
What has been the most surprising or rewarding aspect of your work?
When I first started in the Lab, I remember Erika would just have me read papers and learn about everything, and I would ask questions like, “Why can’t we just say this? Why can’t we say x causes y? Why is there so much controversy? Why can’t people make these claims?” and I think I was just naive coming into college having no experience as an environmental researcher. I definitely learned a lot about how hard it is to do research and how hard it is to make large claims. That is the challenge of research, but it’s also a really rewarding challenge. I’ve definitely evolved so much from when I was going into Erika’s Lab for the first time to where I am now.
What has also been very rewarding has been professors like Erika who trust their students so much. I’m an undergraduate and I’ve done a handful of projects for her. For example, I just got back from my second trip to Puerto Rico for fieldwork. She gives me that responsibility to do projects for her as well as my own projects, which I think is something that helps you develop in college and feel more like a real person. You’re not just sitting in class having a professor lecture at you; you’re going to a lab, you’re running your own project, you’re really taking on more responsibilities and defining your own research more so than just doing somebody else’s research.
What has challenged you most?
The frustrations of research, like when things don’t go right, when you don’t get the results that you need, when you’re trying to develop a methodology and it is nearly impossible–that has been frustrating. But I also think it has been a good challenge to think differently beyond classes. A lot of people in college think, “Okay, now here are my classes. I’m only really going to be engaging myself while I’m in these classes and studying.” Research is like a different world. I feel like I have two different worlds: I go to classes, I do homework and study, but also with research I have my projects, I have my obstacles to overcome, papers to read, conferences to attend, and proposals to write. It is a challenge balancing those two worlds. The latter is much more of a mental challenge when thinking on the larger scale beyond a semester-long class, but that is also the beauty of it.
What are your plans following graduation?
I’m figuring it out and applying to graduate school. I’m not exactly sure what program I’ll end up in, but I know it will still be related to the environment–that is something I am set in–whether it be a professional master’s or a research master’s.
I definitely think my research has helped me. I’ve gone to two of the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meetings for our research which helped expose me to all of the environmental opportunities available. I have presented posters in the biogeosciences session. These experiences have given me an advantage by showing my responsibility and independence as a learner, which is crucial for graduate school.
Can you anticipate some ways that your undergraduate experience will have helped you as you complete your degree?
I think one thing that is really nice about this Department that has helped me is that it is an actual interdisciplinary, collaborative department. As an environmental science major, you have no department; you take classes from many other departments. I get an aspect of community with this Department, not only with the Lab, but also with the Geography Club, with the geography majors, and with (undergraduate advisor) Joel Gruley. There is a very distinct community about this Department, which makes one feel at home. That has really helped me to find people who have similar interests. It is nice to see TA’s or professors walking in Science Hall and being able to say hi to them, just to have that aspect that we’re all geography, that–even though there are different aspects of geography–we’re all on the same page. I think that is really nice and it has helped me to, especially in a huge university like this, have people who understand me. It has brought out the best in my undergraduate experience.
How did the discipline of geography help you get to this point?
I wasn’t fully aware of geography before my freshman year. A lot of people don’t understand what geography is as a department, as a major. You usually have to go around explaining it to them and ignoring their questions about where things are located on a map. The aspect of geography being interdisciplinary has helped me get to this point, because I’ve worked with biological and physical science but I do have social and political interests, and having all of those readily available in one department gives you such a holistic approach.
In what other ways has Geography at UW-Madison supported your work/research?
Erika is awesome and she really encouraged me to apply to grants and fellowships early on. I was really hesitant. I was a new student thinking, “I have no skills or credibility to write these proposals” but we ended up getting a couple of them. I wouldn’t have applied if it hadn’t been for Erika’s encouragement. I also am and have been supported by some of our lab grants, which demonstrates that there is funding for undergraduate work. And also this Department is really nice about research. We use stuff from Professor Mason’s lab all of the time. Some of my research would not have been possible without his supplies, so I think it’s nice how there is a connection between the different labs. Also, for the AGU Conference last fall, I talked to Joel and asked if there were any funds to help me to attend and present my work, and he said that there is a Department fund that can offer support. It is really nice that they have this money allotted that allows undergraduate students to go to conferences and present their research. I am excited to see how more support for undergraduates develops over time in the department.
Would you have done anything differently? Or, is there something that would have made your journey better?
I serendipitously turned into a geography major and am very happy with how everything worked out. But, I think having more geography diversity earlier on in my undergraduate career would have helped me think about classes differently. I declared as a geography major the beginning of my sophomore year. I knew I was going to be a geography major, but I didn’t actually start taking geography courses until the latter part of my career and I think taking these courses earlier was definitely an advantage I missed.
What advice would you recommend to other Geography undergraduates at UW-Madison?
Getting involved in the Department is one of the most important things I’ve found. Every geography professor I’ve met is just so approachable, whether it is going to their office hours or shooting them an email, or even just talking to them about life at Joel’s Tea Time events. There is really something special about the camaraderie in this Department. I would highly recommend that other undergraduates make sure they talk to the professors, talk to the staff, talk to graduate students and to other undergraduates, because they all have different experiences and you can learn a lot from them. It is one of the best parts of this Department.
What would you say to a student considering Geography as a major?
Geography is something unique that you won’t be able to find in any other Department. It is such a distinct discipline, where you can really learn anything about the world in one place. I know that sounds very definite, but I honestly think you can. All of the sub-areas combined really change how you think about the world and perceive everything around you. If you want a major like that, then try out a Geography course or two.