Growing up, Kaitlin Kean spent mornings before school in her father’s office, poring over maps and watching him collect data as a land surveyor.
“That’s where I first learned about the field and that it was something I wanted to pursue,” said Kean, who now claims her own office where she wields sought-after expertise in geographic information systems, or GIS, for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Recently named a “Rising Star” in support of the EPA’s mission to protect human health, Kean honed her skills in the University of Mary Washington’s geography department, ranked among the top 10 in the U.S. Southeast. A bachelor’s degree, paired with a fast-track master’s in geospatial analysis – both completed at UMW – plus a pathway program with the EPA, packed a powerful punch. Now, straight out of college, as a program analyst and training lead in the Office of Mission Support, Kean’s work helps the agency protect communities from environmental hazards like lead paint and toxic waste.
A college-level GIS course she took in high school caught her attention and got the ball rolling. “My teacher told us this was a growing field,” she said, “and if you stick with it, you’ll have a job.”
That’s especially true at UMW, said Geography Chair Jackie Gallagher, where many graduates find immediate work, thanks to the robust programs of the department, which College Factual also ranks No. 5 in Virginia. An active alumni network lends support to new graduates, and Kean, who hails from Charlottesville, also attributes her success to supportive faculty members like Melina Patterson, Ping Yin and her advisor, Brian Rizzo.
“I met Kaitlin as a freshman and was fascinated that she knew exactly what she wanted to do,” said Rizzo, who guided her in her pursuit of a GIS certificate and a thesis on climate ecosystem modeling. “She could be found in the lab all hours of the day and night, working on assignments on Python – a computer programming language – and helping others understand the material.”
As a senior, Kean enrolled in UMW’s accelerated five-year Master of Science in Geospatial Analysis program – one of only two in Virginia – which gives students the chance to take master’s level courses that count toward both undergraduate and graduate degrees. “It’s kind of a double whammy,” Kean said. “I’d recommend it for anyone planning to study GIS.”
Outside of class, she played starting catcher for UMW Softball and worked the front desk at Fredericksburg’s Fly Fitness. An exercise enthusiast, these days she hikes with friends at nearby state parks and walks her labradoodle around her Old Town Alexandria neighborhood on her lunch break, while working from home.
Focused on completing a project management certification later this month, Kean said she’s honored to have earned the respect of her EPA colleagues – and the “Rising Star” award she received during a virtual ceremony last month – so quickly. “At such a large government agency, it feels good to be recognized.”