Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations, a column celebrating the work of geography’s most influential professionals. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features René Pretorius, geospatial solutions provider at Boyle Consulting Engineers.

I met René Pretorius a few years ago when she traveled to California after winning the 2013 Esri Young Scholar Award for South Africa. In San Diego, at the Esri International User Conference, she presented the results of some of the research and development she had been doing. One of her projects involved a geo-game that she had developed in the C Sharp programming language. Not only did she blaze innovative trails in developing the geo-game using a challenging programming language, but she taught herself C Sharp in the process. Needless to say, when she presented her research, the eyes of everyone in the room, including mine, got a little bit wider that day. It is my great pleasure to introduce René to Directions Magazine readers and, through her story, inspire you to make a positive difference in our world.

René’s current position is geospatial solutions provider at Boyle Consulting Engineers. Her company provides geospatial, geotechnical, environmental, and construction materials testing and site monitoring services in the North and South Carolina region. To prepare for her career, René studied Geoinformatics at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

“In 2013, I won the Esri Young Scholars Award for South Africa, which gave me the opportunity to attend the Esri User Conference in San Diego,” René said. “I knew I wanted to do a master’s degree in GIS, and was lucky enough to meet the people of the University of Redlands and began the process of applying for their master’s program. I was very fortunate that I received the Morrison Family Trust Fellowship, [which] provided me with the financial ability to do so.”

I asked René what was the most important thing that convinced her to enter this field. She responded, “The most significant event or person that led to me going in this direction were my in-laws. I always had an interest in geography, but didn’t have a solid idea of what aspect of geography I wanted to follow. Both my mother-in-law (Erika Pretorius, lecturer at the University of Pretoria) and my father-in-law (Dr. J. R. Pretorius, chief GISc professional, Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africa) work in the GIS field and they introduced me to GIS and showed me the fascinating ways in which GIS is used in so many different industries. “

“After this measured introduction to GIS, it grabbed my interest and I knew I had to follow the path in front of me (with some encouragement from my husband). From then I dedicated myself to GIS, improving my knowledge of how to use GIS, how to help people with it, how it can be developed further, and any aspect I could get close to. At first I was only interested in learning how to use GIS software and knowledge, but during my first year I got exposed to computer programming and saw how its combination with GIS would increase the power of the software even more.”

I think René’s story attests to the outreach that we can all do in our own families and circle of friends. Don’t discount this type of outreach as less important than the networking you do in your professional world. The types of seeds that you might plant can be far-reaching, as is evident in René’s in-laws’ influence on her own career pathway.

I then asked René, “What one person, class, or topic most inspired you during your career?” She said, “There is no specific person or topic that inspired me the most, but it was rather the GIS online, university, and professional services community that inspired me. As I got more involved in the GIS industry, I saw how people work together to develop greater things to help people. I saw what could be developed and what could be used that had already been developed to help people. I saw the amazing possibilities that exist within this field. I saw such a great, inspiring community that I wanted to be a part of and contribute to [it]. I saw a field where I could follow my passion and share it with these amazing people.”

“The project I am proudest to be a part of, is a project that is not yet finished. It is the project I worked on in my fourth year, investigating the effect TNT has on trees and grasses, and seeing if this can be combined with remote sensing to find buried land mines in previously war-torn countries. This project is still ongoing by my supervisor, and I would be ecstatic if, at the end, the results will be able to assist with clearing the mines and protect the lives of locals and the people clearing the mines.” René cannot share links to many of the projects she has worked on because they have sensitive and protected information, but she enjoyed creating a Deep Zoom image pop-up using the Esri Web AppBuilder. She encouraged the readers of this article to investigate the “Infrastructure in Crisis” story map about enhancing transportation systems.

I asked René, “What is the most important thing you think we need to work on as the geographic community?”, to which she answered, “This is such an amazing community that helps and supports the people in it, it took some effort to think of something we need to work on that we are not already working towards improving. Working with other small companies, I can see that there is still a need for GIS support here. Due to the lack of familiarity with GIS concepts and economic constraints faced by these companies, they need an easier method for obtaining services and expertise to improve their product, workflow, and communication between office and field personnel.”

René is an excellent example of what I believe more people in the geospatial industry need to embrace:

  • Become conversant with coding languages and application environments.
  • Dig behind the scenes in terms of how GIS and web maps work.

For example, René is conversant in the ArcGIS Application Programming Interface, Python, Visual Basic, Microsoft SQL Server, Visual C#, PostgreSQL, XSLT, VBA, UML, VB.NET, AJAX, and software design, just to name a few. Her coursework reflects her career goals: Among the courses she took in her master’s degree program were Introduction to GIS, Essential GIS Workflows, Performing Analysis, Introduction to Geoprocessing Scripts using Python, Sharing Content on the Web, Introduction to ArcGIS Pro for GIS Professionals, and Building Geodatabases. She has continued learning far beyond the classroom — on her own and in her workplace. René also has done what I continually encourage students and GIS professionals to do: Be willing to go international! René is proficient in Afrikaans and English and has worked in several different countries.

René’s advice to new geographers, surveyors, and GIS professionals is: “Enjoy this amazing community. Share your passion, as so many of us are passionate people that love to interact with other passionate people in the industry. You should also always be thinking whether anything you are learning can help other people in your life in their respective industries. In this industry, we can never stop learning. Don’t settle for good enough.”