For her master's project in geographic information systems at the University of Arizona, Sara Sillars studied and designed a wildlife corridor project for Interstate 10 east of Tucson that's been adopted by the Arizona Department of Transportation.
While in the Masters of Science in Geographic Information Systems Technology (MS-GIST) program in the UA School of Geography and Development, Sillars interned with the Sky Island Alliance, which turned out to be a fortunate connection when Arizona Department of Transportation officials began reaching out to environmental groups for input on an Interstate 10 redesign project.
"I told the Sky Island Alliance I was looking for a master's project to do and it was very timely that they happened to get that letter (from ADOT seeking input)," said Sillars, who earned a degree in wildlife ecology and conservation from the University of Florida before coming to the UA. "I had a lot of interest in designing a wildlife linkage, so I jumped right in."
Sillars began researching species in the area and what corridors wildlife tend to traverse. She gathered a variety of data, including information collected during a 2006 statewide assessment of wildlife linkages, or animal travel corridors.
"That project had already developed corridor modeling tools that I could use, but it just so happened that in the area I wanted to analyze, they hadn't done a specific design yet," Sillars said. "I had to figure out which species were in the area and research what kind of crossing structures which species would ideally use and ultimately put that information into the analysis."
With data on species prevalence and wildlife movement patterns, Sillars used advanced geographic information systems (GIS) modeling techniques to determine placement options for large, medium and small culverts to cross I-10 on a 15-mile stretch in Arizona's Cochise County. Among the species Sillars considered were the Chiricahua leopard frog, Western ornate box turtle, jaguar, deer and others.
"The wildland blocks I chose are part of the Sky Island mountains. They are critical wildlife, some endangered, some threatened," Sillars said.
Working with local biologists, Cochise County transportation planners and local residents, Sillars produced "Wildlife Linkage Design in Cochise County, Arizona."
Sky Island Alliance biologists Jessica Moreno and Sergio Avila-Villegas presented the project at the International Conference on Ecology and Transportation and have worked directly with planners and biologists at ADOT to promote the project. After performing a site visit and preliminary research, ADOT biologists have recommended adopting the project into their five-to-10-year I-10 reconstruction plan.
Sillars, who entered the Air Force as a linguist after two post-college years working as a wildlife biologist, says the UA's MS-GIST program gave her a leg up in her new job as a GIS analyst for Pacific Gas and Electric, where she works on a special projects team converting the utility's system of records from paper into a GIS system.
"Having the GIS skills and being able to show them both on paper and show they're being used in real life helped me get the job," she said. "It's also helped me personally identify specific things in GIS I want to learn about. The job I have now gives me the opportunity to do that."
The one-year MS-GIST program at the UA began in 2011 and has instructed more than 30 students each year, said Chris Lukinbeal, the program's director in the School of Geography and Development.
"There was a need for a professional-based GIS program that was focused on industry placement," Lukinbeal said.
Next fall, the program will launch an online master's degree as well as professional graduate certificate. Students complete master's projects similar to the one Sillars did, working to solve real-world problems. But not every project makes such an immediate impact as the one Sillars completed, Lukinbeal said.
"She was an excellent student, extremely professional, dynamic, always in the pursuit of knowledge and wanting to make a difference," he said. "That shows in her continued success and movement forward with her career."