Elizabeth Zazycki

GIS minor student Elizabeth Zazycki takes on the world of data at UChicago

By Audrey Weckwerth

“During the coronavirus pandemic, The New York Times had a very popular coronavirus tracker. I remember when we were going home in spring 2020, everyone would check it all the time. Through that experience, I saw how useful it is to have data laid out – one could see hot spots of cases in a way that would be difficult to interact with as a flat data set. It made me much more interested in maps and spatial representation, which I found in GIS.”

Elizabeth Zazycki, a third year in the College pursuing a double major in History and Political Science, is also minoring in Geographic Information Science (GIS).

This year, Zazycki is studying abroad at the University of Cambridge, with courses in History and Politics at Trinity College while rowing on the Cambridge Boat Club team. In addition to her studies, Zazycki is involved on campus. She is a co-founder of Spectrum, an LGBTQ+ coalition started at the UChicago Institute of Politics, as well as a Peer Health Exchange Educator, and a leader in the Phoenix Outdoor Program.

As a second year, Zazycki completed the GIS minor sequence, in which she developed skills in spatial analysis and visualizing data in a real-world, human sense.

To Zazycki, data in GIS is more than numbers on a page. “Since we all interact with space and maps – even just going to the L to go to your favorite bakery, the data becomes more human,” Zazycki notes, connecting the international prospects of GIS to a local example for Chicagoans and students on campus.

With involvement across a variety of disciplines, why minor in GIS? “My primary academic and policy interests lie in environmental security and diplomacy,” Zazycki says. “It’s been interesting to integrate that with my spatial analysis work.”

As part of the minor, Zazycki has completed 3 GIS projects across a broad spectrum of paths inside GIS. The first examined Alaskan subsistence land, using data to calculate arctic greening in the region. Alaska is one location where Zazycki’s real-world experience illuminates the necessity of GIS work: in 2020, she spent a month backpacking in Alaska using maps from the 1950s.

“That was one of the moments where you really got to see the impacts of climate change. Rivers were not where they used to be, and the landscape had almost completely changed from the maps.” For her, the experience illustrates how GIS projects utilize data to explain and map changes in the world.

Zazycki also worked on a project to visualize LGBTQ+ spaces in Chicago, which included analyzing the density of LGBTQ+ community service initiatives by region and exploring channels of access to available LGBTQ+ spaces in each community.

Her third GIS project referenced the CalEnviroScreen, a mapping tool to examine pollution in communities in California, and she created a replication of the technology for Philadelphia: the PhillyEnviroScreen. Zazycki’s repository of the PhillyEnviroScreen was acknowledged by Raed Mansour, Director in the Office of Innovation at the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Zazycki worked closely with UChicago professors inside and outside the GIS program to determine her course of action with each project. She is passionate about each topic she chose, and the variety of topics to which she devoted time demonstrates the vast field encompassed under GIS.

But what, really, is GIS? Zazycki explains her minor as “using data with some spatial component that you can spatially analyze.” Outside of the confines of the program requirements, Zazycki adds, “One part that I am interested in is creating more of a visual image of that analysis.”

She describes the program as “more simple than a lot of people see it – it’s learning skills on how to work with data.”

“It’s such an emerging field that you can do something interesting, even having just taken a 10-week class. As a student, your work can be noticed by the Chicago Department of Health.”

Zazycki is a champion of the GIS minor and encourages students choosing their degree programs to consider GIS as an option. More information about the minor and program requirements can be found here.