Q&A with Lance Owen, Geography Alumnus

November 15, 2022

lance owen

Lance Owen is a former graduate student from Berkeley Geography. He recounts his fond memories of the department, how it prepared him for his career at the CDC, and where his training is taking him next.

Tell me about what you do?

For the last 3 years, I have been working as a geography and geospatial analyst in public health. I got pulled into what was initially a post-doc at the CDC, and then became a federal contractor working for a CDC division called GRASP––basically the CDC’s geospatial consultancy. We do all sorts of analyses of disease transmission, exposure analysis, and mapping data visualizations. My division put together the CDC COVID data tracker, building maps of cases, deaths, and things related to the disease. The research of GRASP, which does Geospatial Epidemiology, allowed me to utilize my theoretical-geographer cap. One of the fields that has now gone mainstream is environmental justice, which started as this very academic, radical-geography critical theory. I’ve helped the CDC craft language to communicate these theories and incorporate them in their own work. One of the big undertakings the CDC does is academic production, and I've helped author many discussions incorporating geographic theories. Most people there are trained as epidemiologists or public health people who can read maps, but that only gets them so far. I’ve been the de facto “geographic theory” consultant.

I got recruited 2 months ago by ESRI, and started in mid-October as a ‘business development manager’ for global public health. Because I was at the CDC working on those issues, ESRI has recruited me to interact with countries’ ministers of health to develop the capacity to use ESRI’s geospatial technology in the public health sector.

What do you remember about Berkeley Geography?

There are some funny things–the late Paul Groth nodding off during a colloquium event–that’s a good one. I remember being a grad student, taking this two-semester bootcamp course in which you read great books and talk about them. I remember Kurt Cuffey, Paul Groth, Dick Walker, and Jake Kosek and hearing the dialogue in the room with those people in the conversation. It was really engaging, really interesting. They would critique one another’s works, which is a great thing to see as a grad student because you read a book and you think it’s the word of God, but it’s refreshing to watch an academic complicate the conversation. It truly highlighted the diversity of opinions present in the department, seeing that faculty were willing to engage in constructive debates on their work. Learning how to decode arguments, knowing what analytics people were using, and actually being able to read between the lines is incredibly useful.