May 2005 Student Spotlight on Steven Gates

May 12, 2005

Welcome to the Department of Geography's "Students in the Spotlight Series." Each month we will spotlight a new undergraduate student whose work, research, or activities in geography stand out as exceptional. Find out more about what geographers do and how our students are pushing those standards with their work and ideas. Steven Gates is this month's featured student.

Steven Gates

Geographers aren't predictable - that's for certain.

Steven Gates graduates this month from the Penn State Department of Geography with a degree specializing in urban and regional development. He has excelled in the Department, recently receiving two highly-regarded awards, the E. Willard Miller Award in Geography and the William Grundy Haven Memorial Award for a research paper he wrote on his grandfather's hometown of Freeland, Pennsylvania. Just last month he was offered a position with Dewberry, a multi-faceted service firm with a leading Geographic Information Systems department, to work with flood plain hazard mapping. He turned it down. No mistake, Steve has a love for geography - he used to pour over atlases and maps growing up - but he has another love, perhaps more intuitive, from even earlier in childhood. Music. This fall Steve is headed to the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

"It's one of those things you'll regret if you don't do," Steve says. "Playing music is really what I love to do."

Steve, an accomplished pianist for 15 years, will be entering the Film Scoring Department at Berklee, a distinguished program in a world-renowned college boasting alumni such as Howard Shore, two-time Academy Award winning composer of the "Lord of the Rings" series, and Quincy Jones, winner of 26 Grammy Awards and composer of over 50 major motion picture and television scores. Steve initially considered pursuing music in college, but was disillusioned by the classical training offered by most university music programs.

"I'd rather be playing Billy Joel," Steve admits. "I'm more interested in contemporary music and Berklee offers that. It is geared toward finding work in the music industry."

Like many geographers, Steve has a plenitude of interests. His recent decision to formally pursue music is just another fork in a road that has had numerous twists and turns. He initially entered Penn State with the intent to study meteorology, but as a sophomore switched to mechanical engineering before finally settling into geography in his junior year.

"I've been interested in maps, and in particular cities, all of my life; when I was kid I used to browse atlases for fun," Steve says. "Growing up I witnessed the rapid growth of cities in my home county - Dutchess County, New York. Large numbers of people moved from New York City to the rural areas outside it; I think that's where my interest in cities came from."

Steve grew up in Rhinebeck, New York, a small town ninety miles north of New York City in the Hudson River Valley - population: 3,077. Rhinebeck is located in Dutchess County, a county which has increased in population by nearly sixty percent since 1960 due to an influx of urban dwellers relocating to the more sparsely populated environs outside New York City (U.S. Census 2000). Steve's grandfather attended Penn State on the G.I. Bill after World War II and soon after found work with Texaco in Beacon, NY, about 30 miles south of Rhinebeck and just outside New York City. He was no stranger to the ebb and flow of cities and the far-reaching hand of circumstance. His hometown, Freeland, Pennsylvania, was inextricably tied in time and place to its own inevitable, sweeping chain of events.

Freeland is about a ten minute drive north of Hazelton in the eastern anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. The town thrived for decades in the late 19th century after coal began being mined there in the early 1870's. An overalls and silk factory opened their doors soon after and "mom and pop" stores suddenly sprouted up all over the town. Business boomed. Freeland's population began to diminish though in the early part of the 20th century as the mining operations there exhausted the regions' coal seams and people moved to larger cities to find work. Black Friday of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression of the 1930's sealed the town's fate as thousands fled Freeland in a few short years.

Last fall semester Steve took Geography 401W, the "Historical Geography of North America," with Dr. Deryck Holdsworth. He was assigned to report on a historical town in Pennsylvania using U.S. Census reports from the late 1800's and early 1900's to examine the impacts of industrialization; Steve chose Freeland. Census records do reach back that far, but unfortunately, the older data exist only on microfilm.

"I could go on the U.S. Census website and look at census data all day," Steve admits, "but flipping through slide after slide of handwritten, cursive microfilm documents can be very tedious."

He collected data on family names, professions, ages, birth places, and nationalities to assemble a portrait of the burgeoning immigrant population in the town. The resulting research paper was highly praised with two awards from within the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Analyses of urban environments like this one intrigue Steve, and his time with the Geography Department was largely spent interpreting and studying the built environment. One of his favorite classes was Geography 419, "Urban Social Issues: Structures, Problems, and Policies," with Dr. Melissa Wright.

"The textbook for the class focused on a lot of design concepts; there were many examples of attempts at urban planning by people like Kingsley Davis and Frank Lloyd Wright," Steve remembers. "It was really applicable to what interests me in urban planning. That was definitely one class in which I never looked at the clock. And Melissa was so intelligent and articulate; it was one of my favorite classes in college."

Last summer Steve worked for the Dutchess County Department of Planning and Development in Poughkeepsie, NY. There he honed his GIS skills by working on two projects: the first entailed the use of the ArcMap application to iron out discrepancies in state and county road classification systems in order to secure funding eligibility; the second project involved digitizing forest edges, down to tree clusters and even individual trees, on 1:1000 scale and smaller county maps.

"Working for the Dutchess County Planning Department gave me experience working with GIS in a real application; I acquired new skills that I just didn't learn in classes," Steve remarks.

Even though he's attending Berklee this fall, Steve still plans on keeping ties to geography. This summer he will be interning with the Westchester County Planning Department, creating publications to clarify and spell out the responsibilities of urban planners.

"If there's a way I can combine my interests in geography and music in the future, I would love to try," Steve says. "Who knows, I might get to Berklee and find out it's not what I'm expecting, but for now, there's nothing to lose."