CLAS New Heads Series: Cindy Zhang

Chuanrong (Cindy) Zhang, professor and head of the Department of Geography, outside of the Austin Building on August 23, 2018. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Chuanrong (Cindy) Zhang, professor and head of the Department of Geography, outside of the Austin Building on August 23, 2018. (Bri diaz/UConn Photo)

The CLAS New Heads Series talks with incoming heads and directors of departments, centers, and institutes in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. We ask them questions about their department’s research, education and outreach mission, and how they fit into the multidisciplinary context of a liberal arts and sciences education.

Professor Cindy Zhang began as head of the Department of Geography in August 2018.

What would you say are the geography department’s areas of strength in your field, and/or in comparison to your other peer departments?

A distinct identity for the Department of Geography is its interdisciplinary nature with emphasis on spatial thinking. Geographical science is not restricted to the traditional discipline of geography. Like many other geography departments nationally and internationally, we can proudly say that our department itself is an interdisciplinary community of scientists from different scientific fields equipped with geographical perspectives and techniques. We are concerned with links between people and nature, as well as spatial analysis and representation of the flows of mass, energy, people, capital, and information.

The important characteristic that distinguishes geography from other disciplines that focus on these issues (such as anthropology, atmospheric science, ecology, economics, politics, and sociology) is that geography studies those diverse issues from a spatial perspective. It asks spatial questions and answers them with spatial consideration. Space and place are the building blocks of our research, teaching, and service missions.

What interests students in studying geography?

The Geography department has diverse fields ranging from geosciences and GIS (Geographical Information Science/System), to social and cultural geography. It is concerned with issues in population, economics, settlement, migration, environment, health, climate, culture, politics, transportation, plants, and landforms, among others.

Many of the world’s current issues, from a global scale to a local scale, need the help of geographers to solve, such as global warming, food and energy security, the degradation of land and soils, the spread of disease, the causes and consequences of migration and the impacts of economic change on places and communities. Our undergraduate and graduate students are attracted to geography by the many job opportunities in these areas.

What types of jobs do students pursue after attaining a geography degree at UConn?

Among the bachelor’s students that graduated between 2009 and 2015, about half are pursuing careers in business. The other half are working in state or national government, higher education, or non-profit organizations. Among our MA and Ph.D. graduates since 2009, about one third have taken academic positions, one third work in business and industry, and one third work in a non-profit organization or in state or federal government.

What are the most loved classes taught in Geography?

The most loved classes taught in geography are GIS courses. Students like those classes because they are trained in spatial thinking to serve society, and they learn important geotechnology knowledge and skills from those classes.  The U.S. Department of Labor recognizes geotechnology as one of the three “mega-technologies for the 21st century.” GIS touches all of our lives, from GPS and online maps to global applications one may have never considered.

Have there been recent changes in the geography department that have strengthened the Department? 

Recently we have hired several new faculty members, who have joint appointments with other units such as the Center for Integrative Geosciences (Geosciences) and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS). These new hires not only provide important contributions the geography department in terms of teaching, research, and service, but also they contribute to many inter-disciplinary teaching and research programs on campus.

Are there any common misconceptions about the field of geography?

Many people have misconceptions about the subject of geography. They narrowly think the field of geography is what they have learned in high school or middle school—coloring in maps, testing locations of world capital cities, charting the population growth of cities, playing with rocks, mapping volcanoes… People might think that a module on heritage and memory belongs in history or museum studies; that a module on war and peace in the Middle East should be studied as part of international relations; that a module on Martian landscapes is geology, astronomy or science fiction. But these are all taught as part of undergraduate geography degrees in college.

There are a huge range of other areas of study: medical geography, biogeography, historical geography, economic geography, and many others.

Where do you see your field going in the next 10 years?

Geographical information and analytical tools in the next 10 years will continue playing a fundamental role in monitoring, analyzing, and confronting the unprecedented changes that are unfolding on our Earth and the relationships that exist among its peoples and environments. Geography is of vital importance in the provision of emergency services, transportation and urban planning, environmental hazard management, natural resource exploitation, and military operations. Geographical scientists may make dramatic progress in the next 10 years by exploring the opportunities created by advances in mainstream information technology, by new sensors, and by new cross-cutting theme roles in science from geographical perspective.

What’s your favorite place on the Storrs campus?

The Dairy Bar, because of its delicious ice cream.

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