Geography's Changing Nature


Posted on November 17, 2016 by


Dr. Carol Sawyer, Associate Professor of Earth Sciences, studies geomorphology, natural hazards, and environmental change. According to Sawyer, “geomorphology is the study of the processes and landforms of earth whereas natural hazards refer to potential threat of natural earth processes to humans, and environmental change looks at how natural processes are shifting or being altered. Geomorphology is my primary interest as I love ‘reading’ the landscape to see what processes were and may still be at work and the resultant landforms these processes created.”

She came to USA in 2007 from Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, where she earned my M.Sc. and Ph.D. Sawyer has an interesting story about how she became a geographer: “I stumbled into geography by taking World Regional Geography at North Texas to fulfill my social science requirement. At the time, I had no idea geography could be a career and did not even consider it until I entered Montana State. I stayed in geography because the discipline fulfills all my interests in mountains, the landscape, and natural hazards. In other words, as soon as I realized I could study those things in geography, I knew I was home.”

Her current research focuses on geometric landforms on mountain ridges in Olympic National Park in Washington. She examines changes in the earth’s surface caused by freezing, a phenomenon called active patterned ground. She says she wants to “understand when the active features are likely to cease operating given environmental change.” The next part of her project will require her to “insert temperature and soil moisture sensors in the ground at several field sites in July 2016 to study how often the relict versus the active sites freeze daily.”

She carries her enthusiasm for research into her classrooms. She particularly enjoys teaching GEO 405, Natural Hazards and Disasters, and GEO 317, Mountain Geography. “Everyone is fascinated by destruction,” Sawyer declares, “in the same way that motorists slow down to look at an accident, with students feeling the same way about GEO 405. Students love learning about why natural hazards exist and what past disasters have constructed our current views and actions regarding natural hazards.” The Mountain Geography course speaks to Sawyer’s love of “living in the mountains,” and she says she “return[s] to the mountains as often as possible to conduct research, so teaching students about them is fun and challenging.”

Sawyer received the College’s 2011 Advising Award and says being a good listener is crucial to advising success. Listening with care helps one work with students to shape course selections to meet respective goals. Sawyer says she “encourage[s] … advisees to find a job posting that would be their ‘perfect job’ early in their academic life and, then, [to] tailor[] their academic path to be ready for such a job or the like. Doing this exercise encourages students and helps them stay focused. Regularly meeting with students also allows time to re-evaluate those plans, have students consider internships, and to see how they are doing in their courses.”

Changes in technology and the increase in women in geography have reshaped the discipline over the last 25 years. According to Sawyer, “Fifteen years ago, students were taught how to hand-draw different types of maps. Now, we use complex and expensive software programs 
to go above and beyond teaching map making, but also having students analyze spatial data, giving students more marketable skills. The advances are astounding and allow for more in-depth study of landscapes.”

“Like other sciences,” Sawyer says, “women have always been under-represented at all academic levels: undergraduate, masters, and Ph.D. Forty years ago, women earned 5% of the Ph.D. awarded in geography in the U.S. Now is it about 40%; however, at the undergraduate level only 34% of geography majors in the U.S. last year were female. The discipline has made big strides, particularly in sub-disciplines of geography with human-based research; however, a big disparity still exists. In the future, geography continues to move towards increasing diversity, being recognized as a discipline, and incorporating more technology into every avenue of research and work.”

Travel is, not surprisingly, a key component of Sawyer’s research. She says “[t]he coolest thing about geography is our need to travel to study a phenomenon. True geographers are not armchair geographers—we travel and explore to understand the way something, natural or human-based, works. Travel is inherently necessarily in my field, and I love that it is a built-in excuse to explore the world.” Indeed, even when not teaching and doing research, Sawyer loves going seemingly everywhere—she has traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and internationally as well, but, as she points out, there are still so many more places to see.

For someone who always has the urge to be traveling, Sawyer also, paradoxically, finds the time to satisfy another passion, her bibliomania. She reads a book or two a week—mysteries, texts about nature, and, not surprisingly, books about natural disasters. Her passion for language rivals her passion for understanding the physical world.


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