From the desk of President Leslie K. Guice

Dr. Irene Casas: Discovering new geography through information systems

Jul 15, 2014 | Faculty Feature


Dr. Irene Casas

Irene Casas was born in Cali, Colombia and earned a BSc in Systems Engineering from Universidad ICESI in Cali and an MS in Systems Engineering and Computing from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. Irene developed a passion for geographic information systems (GIS) after completing a semester internship during her undergraduate degree while working for a GIS company, and while conducting research on the applications of GIS to transportation during her masters. Through these experiences, Irene faced many geographic questions that she was not prepared to answer because she lacked the proper foundation and background. So, she decided that she needed to further her education, particularly in geography, and continued her academic pursuits towards a PhD. Irene noted, “Back in the 1990s, GIS was not as multidisciplinary as it is today and geography programs were not so keen on accepting engineers (fortunately that has all changed!). This put me on the road to a second master’s degree, this time an MA in geography, which I completed at the University of Akron followed by a PhD at The Ohio State University. The transition from engineering to social science was not easy!! Learning how to think as a social scientist can be very challenging!!  Fortunately, I had great teachers including the head of the geography department at Ohio State who, since I joined, made it his goal to ‘make a geographer’ out of me. Being a geographer has many meanings, but the most significant, which I emphasize in all my classes, is the ability to analyze and understand phenomena that occur over space.”

With colleagues at a workshop in New Orleans

Having a diverse background has provided Irene with the opportunity to work with a variety of people in different fields and apply GIS in several areas. More recently, Irene has been involved in a large project on dengue fever in her hometown of Cali. Irene said, “It has been very rewarding, allowing me to work with local health officials, city residents, and learn new things about the city.” Conducting research in the city where she grew up has created other research possibilities as well. In the area of transportation, Irene has been studying the implementation process of the new bus rapid transit system, from the infrastructure and social perspective. “Doing research in the developing world has sparked new interests and intellectual endeavors for me,” Irene noted. iacasas2bWhen Irene came to Tech, she had already been teaching for several years at the undergraduate and graduate levels. However, her main focus was on how GIS was applied to the field of transportation. Regarding the newness of the GIS field, Irene reflected, “Preparing intermediate and advanced undergraduate GIS classes was exciting! Identifying the topics to include in each class, I was able to organize and decide what I thought was fundamental for a student with an undergraduate GIS degree to have.” All of Irene’s classes at Tech have a lab component. Given the technical and practical nature of the GIS degree, it is imperative for the students to learn how all the concepts are applied. The latest technology in hardware and software is required for this purpose. Irene said, “We are very fortunate to have both! Thanks to a student technology fee grant, we were able to replace our Social Science GIS lab and now have a state-of-the-art facility.” Since Irene arrived at Tech, the GIS program has more than doubled in size. “I encourage students to work together in and outside the classroom. We spend more than 12 hours a week together in class and building connections among them and with former graduates is of primary importance. As an important part of building connections and getting to know the GIS industry in the area, it has become sort of a tradition for the students to attend the Louisiana Remote Sensing and GIS workshop (partially funded by the School of Forestry). By attending this event, students have not only broadened their knowledge of how GIS is being used around the state, but they have also met the hardware and software distributors, government employees, and potential colleagues.”

Irene with her student Ramsey Morein

Given the amount of time Irene spends with her students in the classroom throughout their tenure in the program, it is inevitable that close personal relationships are created with each one of them. Irene said, “By doing so, I try to encourage and foster their individual abilities and interests. One of my students was honored last spring at the Academic Excellence Luncheon of the College of Liberal Art as a Student of Excellence based on her accomplishments and her work with the community. My relationships with students continue after they graduate and move on to jobs and other endeavors.  This is one of the things that I enjoy the most as a professor, being able to touch their lives in some way.”  

Irene at Chichenitza, Mexico

When asked about her interests, Irene noted, “One of my not so secret pleasures is to teach the World Regional Geography class during the summer. It is the one time that I get to interact with students from various disciplines whose field of interest is not geography. I have the opportunity to give them a glimpse of what it is and that is not boring as some might think!  I also get to share with them personal experiences about my travels and learn about theirs. Irene is a Zumba Fitness® instructor. She co-teaches a class at the First Baptist Church’s gym in downtown Ruston. Irene acknowledged, “It is a volunteer activity that serves the community and I love doing. I have met great people there and made wonderful friends. I also try to participate in all the charity events and activities organized by Zumba lovers around the area.

Irene during a Zumbathon to help fight breast cancer

Irene seems to love her new home in the U.S. She noted that in five more years, she will have lived an equal number of years in Colombia and the U.S.! We are certainly happy that she made the choice to come to the U.S., and particularly to Ruston, where she is making significant contributions both inside and outside the classroom.