UMSL mathematics alumna Jessie Bleile serving as new geospatial professor of practice
As a rising junior at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Jessie Bleile was the odd one out in her United Way fellowship.
The program connected college students in the St. Louis region with nonprofits that aligned with their majors. Bleile was the only STEM major in the eight-person cohort, which left program administrators mulling over where to place her.
Eventually, they sent her to work with the crime analysis unit at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. During the fellowship, Bleile worked with Emily Blackburn, an UMSL criminology and criminal justice alumna who at the time was managing the unit, to track crime in the city with a geospatial information system mapping software called ArcGIS Enterprise Portal.
“I’d never heard of GIS,” Bleile said. “I had no idea there was all this work going on in geospatial, but they gave me an opportunity to work in ArcGIS to do crime density maps and practice with the software. After that summer, I was looking on campus for opportunities to keep using that because I did think it was really cool.”
The experience sparked a passion for GIS and marked the beginning of an accomplished career in the geospatial field.
The next year, Bleile went on to intern with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and continued to do so over the next three years as she earned a master’s degree in applied mathematics and graduate certificate in GIS and geospatial intelligence at the University of Missouri–Columbia. She then transitioned to a full-time role with NGA as a geodetic scientist and also began teaching as an adjunct instructor at UMSL. More recently, she’s begun working on NGA’s academic outreach initiatives.
Last year, Bleile began her tenure as NGA visiting professor at Harris-Stowe State University. As of this semester, she’s been tapped to serve as a professor of practice in geospatial science at UMSL, where she’ll help the university expand its geospatial offerings.
“We are excited to have Jessie return to USML as we work to meet the needs of a growing geospatial sector in St. Louis and take a leading role in building its future workforce,” Provost and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Steven J. Berberich said.
In 2020, the university launched the UMSL Geospatial Collaborative to promote geospatial technological innovation, research and community engagement. In 2021, the university entered into an Educational Partnership Agreement with NGA to work with NGA professionals to develop academic courses and programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics that will provide students the knowledge and skills needed for careers in geospatial intelligence. Those initiatives will be aided by $1 million in funding from MoExcels Workforce Initiative, which the university will match, to build a Geospatial Advanced Technology Lab on campus as well as a virtual reality lab.
Mapping her future
Bleile initially enrolled at UMSL as a biology major, but by her sophomore year, she realized it wasn’t for her. She found herself missing math and enrolled in a calculus class to fill that void.
“I told myself, if I get an A, I’ll switch my major to math,” she said. “And I did. That has opened so many doors since then.”
Changing her major and becoming a part of the Department of Mathematics, Physics, Astronomy and Statistics was a revelation for Bleile. She always had an aptitude for the subject, but her high school math teachers never explained that math could be a pathway to a fulfilling career. Once she was able to dive deeper into mathematical concepts, she became excited about what was possible.
During her time at UMSL, Bleile was also a part of the Pierre Laclede Honors College. She said the experience provided balance academically between the heavily technical STEM courses in her major and liberal arts courses in the Honors College. That unique interdisciplinary education has served her well.
“All of my public speaking, writing, critical thinking skills, all of that was in the Honors College,” Bleile said. “It has enhanced all of my academic and professional pursuits since. I think it’s even more critical for STEM students, who don’t get a lot of that presentation and paper-writing experience on the other side of campus, to do that within the Honors College.”
After earning her master’s degree in 2016, Bleile accepted a full-time position with NGA as a geodetic orbit analyst. In that role, she analyzed and monitored GPS signals and other global navigation satellite systems. Around that time, Daniel Gerth, then interim dean of the Honors College, approached Bleile about developing more math-focused courses for the college.
Bleile had taught first- and second-year math courses at MU as a graduate student and enjoyed the experience, which led her to accept Gerth’s offer. The first class she taught was Science in the News, an information literacy course aimed at teaching students how to read an article about science and evaluate its accuracy.
“They allowed me to then start developing more classes from what I was interested in,” Bleile said. “The first class I developed on my own was called Stat Wars: The Big Data Menace. Half of my students signed up because they thought it said ‘Star Wars,’ which I don’t blame them. The Honors College has such unique classes that there could be a Star Wars class. But that was really a lot of fun for me because I realized where students were getting their information.”
She continued to develop courses over the next several years including Mapping for Change, which leveraged GIS technology to advocate for historically divested areas of St. Louis. Her work at UMSL dovetailed neatly with her transition to academic outreach with NGA in 2019.
In the new position, Bleile identified and connected NGA intelligence analysts with academic partners who could work on difficult, unclassified projects through Collaborative Research and Development Agreements. Eventually, that work presented an opportunity for Bleile to move to the classroom full-time as a visiting professor at Harris-Stowe in 2022.
The move necessitated briefly stepping away from teaching in the Honors College, but going forward, she’ll split her time between Harris-Stowe and UMSL.
Bleile’s return to UMSL comes just as the university’s tapped Reda Amar – most recently serving as an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at Lamar University and the director of its Geospatial Center in Beaumont, Texas – to lead the Geospatial Collaborative.
She’s also been reunited with Blackburn, who returned to UMSL as a geospatial analyst in December 2021. Blackburn will be supporting UMSL faculty and students, businesses and the community in employing geospatial technologies.
“I’m really happy to now be back working with UMSL after a break,” Bleile said. “I come from an UMSL family. My mom went to UMSL then came back for her graduate degree. My brother went to UMSL. I’m just supportive and excited about the direction that the university wants to move in this geospatial space.”
As a professor of practice, Bleile will play a key role in supporting that effort. She’s currently developing an introductory GIS course, which she’ll begin teaching during the fall semester. The course will verse students in different GIS technologies and their respective capabilities. It is meant to make students comfortable with using the software so they can start building their own projects.
“In addition to the software, I think data is a really important piece,” Bleile said. “There’s so much data available out on the web. For me, it’s that information literacy. It’s being able to determine whether that is a good data source. Are there gaps in the data? Are there missing values that you’ll have to fill in?”
It’s critical to Bleile that students grasp those principles and learn more than “GIS lingo.” To that end, the course’s final project will challenge students to collect suitable data to run through GIS software to visualize that information.
That’s just the starting point of UMSL’s geospatial academic offerings, though. The College of Arts and Sciences is working to establish a GIS certificate program and emphasis area in the data science and analysis bachelor’s program. Bleile said as that process is finalized, she sees there being opportunities for students to work on applied projects with NGA or other GEOINT organizations. She added that interdisciplinary courses across the academic spectrum that include geospatial lessons, modules or technology will also be important for continued growth.
Bleile believes one class or one project could be all it takes to change someone’s career trajectory.
“That’s what I love when I’m talking to students and being in this space,” Bleile said. “Because that was my experience. I just had this opportunity to do some geospatial work and talk to geospatial experts and then it set me down this way. So now, to see students doing that same thing, it’s just so cool.”
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