Ashley Sharkey graduated from Ball State in 2013 with a bachelors of science in geography & natural resources and environmental management. Her degree allowed her to try several different jobs over the past few years, where she accrued valuable skills and honed her interests. Each has led her toward success in her current role as an Environmental Manager for the Indiana Department of Transportation, where uses her degree to help people across northwest Indiana.
Tell us about your current job. We’d love to hear about the day to day work and your broader projects!
I work for the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) as an Environmental Manager. My job is a bit of being a jack of all trades. I work on reviewing projects for environmental impacts and doing field work for project reports. I create hazardous material reports, wetland delineations, historic reports, and environmental impact documents. I also review environmental documents, written by outside consultants, to ensure they are following state and federal regulations.
I spend most of the spring and summer in the field taking pictures and documenting sites for wetland and waterway impacts. Part of that work includes being aware of climate conditions and if the conditions I am seeing in the field are typical or atypical for that time of the year. When conditions are dry, or unseasonably wet, that can impact how saturated the soil is and where the water table is located within the soil profile. All the information I collect goes into a document known as a Waters of the US Report, which is used along with plans from engineers, to submit permit applications to agencies such as the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM).
Describe your career path. Did you land your current job immediately after graduation or find your way there circuitously?
My career path has been an interesting one. I have worked at a hospital doing infection control and patient transport. I have also been a middle and high school science teacher. I’ve also been a lab tech testing roadway material, including asphalt and concrete. Working at the hospital helped me gain a strong sense of how to use statistics and writing strong reports that are of value to others. Being a teacher helped me become more flexible and learn how to explain something multiple ways so that everyone in my audience understands. In testing I saw how weather and road damage could impact a material and how it will hold up under real world conditions.
What is the most fulfilling part of your job?
The most fulfilling part of my job is getting to help a large team move several hundred projects a year that help people across northwest Indiana.
What are the most valuable skills you learned as a geography major? How have they helped you post-graduation?
GIS skills are definitely some of the most valuable skills I learned as a geography major. It allowed me to adapt quickly to my current job, which requires using existing GIS data and inputting new data. This also includes using remote sensing data such as LiDAR to accurately map and describe a project area.
Another set of skills includes climate and weather as I need to know what has been happening at a project site both in the recent past as well over several decades. Being able to look at weather patterns to find a date that will allow for the best representation of a site is critical to what I do.
Finally, statistics is another key part of all the jobs I have held that I learned as geography major. Seeing patterns and being able to map where those occur, whether that was at a small scale such as hospital, or large scale such as state wide, has allowed me to pinpoint where issues occur and quickly get to the bottom of problems.
Is there a particular class or professional opportunity that you remember having a big impact on you?
One of the biggest opportunities I had was getting to work with Dr. Coleman on an independent research project covering the 2012 drought. That experience taught me how to do graduate-level research as well as how to write a strong report. This has allowed me to do well in all the jobs I have held so far, as well as preparing me for grad school.
What advice do you have for geography majors?
Do not box yourself in by thinking that just because you have a degree is geography you are limited in what you can do. It is a very flexible degree that lends itself well to a wide variety of jobs and career paths.
Experiment with paring your study of geography with another field you enjoy such as history, environmental science, or emergency management. Find your unique niche and have fun with it because you never know where the path less traveled will lead!