Alumni Spotlight: Wendi Pedersen

Wendi Pedersen wanted to apply her knowledge of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) learned in the UW Department of Geography to the field of environmental science. Coupling GIS as a methodological tool with her other analytical training in the department could, she believed, prove a powerful combination. Ultimately, her work to combine these interests has led Wendi to the United Nations (UN).

Wendi first interned with the Nature Conservancy in Thurston County, Washington, developing a method to locate oak woodlands and prairies in the county. Equipped with knowledge, experience, and a new skill set, Wendi made a huge but rewarding jump to an internship with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, Switzerland, arranged through the EUSA European Internship Program at the University of Washington.

Cartographically displaying the interrelationship(s) between climate change, geopolitical instability, and refugee movement, Wendi primarily studies the status of refugees in areas of conflict referred to as environmental ‘hotspots’. These ‘hotspots’ are regions where environmental issues such as flooding, cyclones, and drought are frequent and severe; these pressures atop political instability can lead to deeply vulnerable refugee populations, the group UNHCR exists to serve. Using GIS, Wendi maps refugee locations and population movements, overlaying this data onto maps demonstrating environmental threats.

Ethically, Wendi is motivated by the fact that the populations most impacted by climate change are often the most vulnerable. Accelerated climate change has been responsible for situations including environmentally-induced migration and tensions over dwindling energy and land resources. In turn, this leads to political and social conflicts, further displacing communities and threatening political stability. Wendi uses GIS in multiple ways:

  • To see patterns of weather and geographic change
  • To examine climate change geographically
  • To understand how refugee camps are altering the surrounding environment
  • To map the movement and numbers of displaced people

To provide a visual of human suffering that will garner increased attention and support for vulnerable populations

The outcome is that UN officials can use this information to anticipate camp needs and prevent the establishment of camps in high-risk zones. Wendi is also responsible for map creation requests from multiple other UN departments. Wendi says that “GIS is a powerful tool in connecting the dots between the many facets of a multilayer situation, and through its visual representation we can bring the reality of those situations to the forefront of popular thinking.” She enthusiastically encourages students to pursue internships with the United Nations and other organizations, stating that multiple opportunities exist for training, career development, and personal enrichment. She believes our fundamental responsibility is to expose conditions of suffering and environmental degradation globally, truly embodying the idea of a global citizen.

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