GES Alumni

 Read the GES Alumni Newsletter for news, events, & opportunities!

Featured Alumni:

Aaron Russell

Bryce Risley

Chris Sylvan

Kurt Menke

Laurel Ladwig


Courtney Wikle



Courtney Wikle

Courtney Wikle

Courtney Wikle (M.S., 2018) is a Cartographer working for the National Ocean Service (NOS) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Her division of the National Ocean Service is responsible for creating and maintaining digital maps of all coastal waterways through the United States and its territories worldwide.

As a cartographer, her job is to update, revise, and maintain nautical charts through ArcGIS software applications and centered around ESRI software applications. The majority of the coursework at UNM used ArcMap, ArcPro, ArcCatalog, etc. and these are all things that she uses every day at work.

Some advice that she would give to geography students is to not necessarily single out GIS or remote sensing entirely. Know that there’s a good chance that you’ll be using both within your career. Although the maps that she updates are vector-based, a ton of the data that comes in is from LIDAR surveys of the ocean floor and may need to be opened up in programs like ENVI.  Having some experience in both RS and GIS sets you up to cast a wider net of experience and is always a huge resume-booster during job searches.



Laurel Ladwig 

Ladwig Alum

Laurel Ladwig (M.S. Geography 2020) is the new Partnership Coordinator for the Albuquerque Backyard Refuge Program, an initiative to expand wildlife habitat in Albuquerque’s urban center. For the last couple years, Ladwig has served on the project’s core development team, helping to design an outreach program and certification process that encourages Albuquerque residents to make their yards suitable for a variety of wild species. With this new position, she moves into a leadership role focused on building partnerships with government agencies, educational institutions, businesses, and non-profits.

As Partnership Coordinator, Ladwig will be able to rely on her own graduate research. Ladwig’s master’s thesis in GES implemented a large survey to gather information about Albuquerque residents’ willingness and motivation to participate in “wildlife gardening” in 2019. The survey results are directly relevant to the Backyard Refuge program and will contribute to Ladwig’s ability to implement an effective outreach program. She also remains connected to GES by volunteering as the communications executive for the new GES alumni group to bring you news updates and a quarterly newsletter.

With a deep commitment to citizen science, Ladwig is always looking for ways to get new people involved in initiatives that highlight human-environment connections and relations. She helps organize the Rio Grande Nature Center’s annual BioBlitz, volunteers with the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, serves on the advisory committee for the Bernalillo County Master Naturalist program, leads bird walks, writes informational pamphlets, and design T-shirts, all with a goal of improving Albuquerque citizens’ connections to the wild environment.


Aaron Russel

russell alumni profile

Engaging in renewable energy social science is what brough GES alum Aaron Russell to the University of Delaware in 2017 to pursue a Ph.D. in Water Science and Policy. The geography of the mid-Atlantic region is very different from the high desert west, but many of the issues are the same. The country is undergoing a socio-technical transformation towards greater reliance on renewable sources of electricity. These require new infrastructures, and like any other change to the status quo, communities often find themselves divided about how to respond. Policymakers and developers know this and despite the potential for fostering greater collaboration between stakeholders, renewable projects are often delayed and sometimes fail.

Aaron, who always wanted to study the intersection of technology advancement and environmental issues, studied community responses to solar development in southern Colorado during his time as a Master’s student at UNM. His greatest takeaway from completing the M.S. in Geography has been the importance of place attachment constructs. These theories look to contextualize how people relate to their surroundings through their self-identities, dependencies, and overall relatedness. This information has received increasing attention from geographers as well as other social and policy scientists as the global and local consequences of climate change bring increasing awareness to how we power our civilization.

Aaron has also regularly participated in community outreach in Delaware regarding future offshore wind development. This has included public lectures and community information fairs. He has presented his work internationally and interned with the US Department of Energy while living for a short time in Washington D.C. Aaron is currently completing his dissertation while preparing to move on from student life into a career in academia or public service.




Kurt Menke

Kurt Menke

In Spring 2019, the Geography and Environmental Studies Department awarded Kurt Menke the inaugural GES Distinguished Alumni Award. Menke, a 2000 graduate of the department’s Master’s program, is the owner of Bird’s Eye View, a GIS company he started in 2008. He’s also a leader in open source GIS, advocating for QGIS, an alternative to ArcGIS. He says that whereas companies like ESRI or Microsoft issue property licenses geared toward limiting the use of their software—by limiting how many computers the software can run on, what features are available, or for how long it will run—open source licenses are “radical” and designed to grant rights to users, rather than restrict them.

A former archaeologist, Menke teaches classes worldwide about QGIS, and has written five books, including Discover QGIS 3.x, an updated workbook, and his most recent, QGIS for Hydrological Applications. Thinking back to his time at GES, and working for the Earth Data Analysis Center at UNM, he recalls when the computer lab was new, in the 1990s.

Menke’s master’s thesis used GIS to find the best route through New Mexico for the Continental Divide National Trail. And from even before his founding of Bird’s Eye View, he worked with environmental groups like the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and WildEarth Guardians. He always wanted to use technology to make the world a better place, he says, and to use GIS for good projects.



Bryce Risley

Kurt Menke

As a graduate student at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences, UNM alumni Bryce Risley spent seven weeks over winter break in Sri Lanka—not for vacation, but to embark on critical fieldwork for his research. Historically, Sri Lanka has been the third largest supplier of saltwater aquarium fish for the American market.

Risley earned his B.S. in Geography and Environmental Studies in 2014, and even though he focused on GIS, he says he was drawn more and more to human geography. Today, he’s working on a dual master’s degree in marine biology and marine policy to understand the trade in marine ornamental fish species. His interest in aquariums goes all the way back to his youth, and he jokes that his grandparents are responsible “for all this mess.” They were docents at the Albuquerque Zoo, helped raise money to build Albuquerque’s aquarium, and co-founded the Albuquerque Aquarium Association. As a child, he used to shadow them, learning the names of the fish, and later, he worked at the Albuquerque Biological Park.

Many people understand that the world’s coral reefs are in danger, due to climate change and ocean acidification, as well as coastal development projects. But communities that rely upon fishing, and the fish trade, are also threatened. Risley worries, he says, about what happens to those communities in the future. And studying geography has helped him grapple with questions about how cultural and socio-economic factors influence the supply chain and the stakeholders. “There is so much complexity behind the relationships,” he says. “There’s also a history behind it.”

Like many other graduates from the Geography and Environmental Studies Department, Risley’s undergraduate education in Geography helped shape his understanding of the world, and guide the questions he asks within his research in marine biology and marine policy. And as a scientist, Risley doesn't want to just gather and analyze data. He also wants to represent the voices of those who are a part of the supply chain. “There is a lack of representation,” he says. “And what’s important to me is telling a story about the actual people participating in the trade.”



Chris Sylvan

Chris Sylvan earned his B.S. from GES in 2011, and even though he sometimes thinks of his career as having followed a circuitous route, Sylvan reflects the department’s breadth and depth well. He began his academic career in GES focused on mapping and GIS, but became intrigued by issues related to food and natural resources, and then policy and politics.

As a student and following graduation, Sylvan worked on both the campaign and policy sides of politics. He served as an intern for then-Rep. Martin Heinrich, worked on the congressional campaign of Eric Griego, and hustled around southern New Mexico as a campaign coordinator for the Democratic Party. Until about a year ago, he worked as a policy analyst for Albuquerque City Councilor Diane Gibson.

Today, Sylvan is the Community Policing Council manager for the City of Albuquerque. Each of the six Albuquerque Police area commands has a council, and even though they precede the U.S. Department of Justice’s mandate for the city to address APD’s use of force, the councils gained increased visibility after the implementation of the settlement between DOJ and APD. It’s Sylvan's job to manage the six councils—to ensure members have what they need to foster better policing and better community-police relationships.

He likens his work as a policy analyst for one city councilor to being an undergraduate. “You have to know all these different things, and how to tie them together,” he says. Meanwhile, working for the Community Policing Council is like graduate school: “The work is intense, it’s huge, and it’s heavy.”

Sylvan is also a board member of the Rio Grande Community Farm. And he's Senior Olympian: he just officially qualified to compete next year in the 800- and 1,500- meter track events.

Having lived in Albuquerque since 1998, Sylvan still loves to explore New Mexico, and remembers fondly first arriving in the state. “I loved looking at the map and saying, ‘I’m going to go here: Elephant Butte, the Jemez, Roy, Kiowa National Grasslands,’” he says. “I explored the whole state.” And he laughs, he loved being a geography major.



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