Lain Graham, who will be graduating with her doctoral degree in sociology on Dec. 19.

UCF GIS Professor Changes Path of Student, Helps Lead Her to Awesome Job

By: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala on

A great professor really can change a student’s life.

Lain Graham, who will be graduating with her doctoral degree in sociology on Dec. 19, can attest to the power a knowledgeable and caring faculty member can have on a life ­— and in her case on a whole family.

“I first met Dr. Tim Hawthorne as an anthropology graduate student at Georgia State University, where I took his intro to GIS study abroad in Belize course,” Graham says. “It was life-changing.”

Developing an Interest in GIS

The geographic information system class is similar to the one Hawthorne, an associate professor of GIS and graduate director in the department of sociology, has established at UCF. The class takes students to the Central American country of Belize, where they collect data from interviews, public records, and drones they operate to gather geographical information. Using innovative methods, students map the data, which policymakers and local communities can use to inform decision making. This can include anything from where to place a school to how best to clear a field for agricultural work. It can also be useful in identifying topics that have cultural importance, which can inform stakeholders when working with indigenous communities.

“It was such an amazing experience,” says Graham of the Belize trip at her former university.

Graham went on to complete a year in the anthropology doctoral program at the University of Georgia, but Hawthorne’s class made an impression and often left her wondering if there was a way to do more with GIS.

Finding Support for Her Success

Then life happened, Graham says, when she found out she was expecting twins at the same time her husband got a “dream job” offer in Virginia. The family moved and after a year as a full-time mother she was aching to get back to academia.

“I’ll be honest,” Graham says. “I was going through an identity crisis. Archaeologist, academic wife, mother. I felt a gap.”

She reached out to Hawthorne, who had recently joined UCF. After a few weeks, he offered her an opportunity to take a leadership role in Belize and encouraged her to think about continuing her journey towards a doctorate at UCF.

Lain Graham collected data in Belize for her doctoral degree.

“I have been incredibly blessed with a system of support,” Graham says. “My best friend took the twins for the summer so I could do the fieldwork, and my husband encouraged me to pursue an opportunity to return to academia. Dr. Hawthorne did not see me as a new mother with limitations but as a tough field researcher with the potential for leadership and career growth. He helped create a path for me to pursue my degree.”

Hawthorne calls Graham one of his favorite human beings and remembers being impressed early on by her work. He sees his role as a facilitator to help students figure out why what they want to do matters and to help them navigate the journey, Hawthorne says.

“In my long talks with [Graham], it became clear that she wants to use mapping for good, and valued community stakeholders in her work,” Hawthorne says. “She wants to use science to share the stories and knowledge of others. That’s very empowering for her and for the communities with which she and I work. She is the best graduate student I have had the pleasure of working with because she embodies the spirit of UCF as America’s Partnership University.”

Man wearing glasses and gray suit with yellow tie stands in front of brick flower bed
Tim Hawthorne (Photo by Austin Warren)

Reaching Her Potential

By August 2016, Graham moved to Florida with her twins while her husband remained in Virginia.

“The long-distance relationship was hard,” she says. “But he was ever supportive. We made it work and treasured our visits.”

Graham was awarded a research assistantship in Hawthorne’s research group and made many trips to Belize in her role as a senior research mentor in Hawthorne’s National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates field site in Belize. That’s where she collected data for her doctoral work at UCF.

Two years into her sociology PhD, Graham landed a job with Esri — one of the largest GIS software companies in the world — which includes support to NASA, EPA, the U.S. Census, and federally recognized tribes. In November, she was also appointed as a Research Associate for the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History.

She finished her qualifying exams before she moved back to Virginia in 2018 to start at Esri as a science and civilian solution engineer on the National Government team. All that was left was to finish her analysis and write her dissertation for her PhD.

“If I hadn’t had that one class with Dr. Hawthorne and if he hadn’t done all he did to help a student, I’m not sure where I’d be,” Graham says. “I’m incredibly happy, back in Virginia enjoying life with my husband and now five-year-old twins and working in a wonderful job where I get to work with federal agencies and make a difference. And this month, I get my Ph.D.”

Making an Impact

When the global pandemic hit, it slowed Graham’s work down, but being able to continue to get support even remotely has made all the difference. She successfully finished her mixed-methods dissertation, which used sociology and GIS to map a sense of place and perceptions of tourism and development in Hopkins Village, a traditional Garifuna fishing village located on the coast of central Belize. The data is important as Graham’s research is representative of a national shift in Belize from a subsistence-based economy to a primarily service and tourism-based economy. She hopes these findings and insights into locals’ perceptions of tourism and development will help community members and government officials work together on economic development plans.

When she defended her dissertation in November, she did so well her committee has nominated her for the Outstanding Dissertation Award and the Order of Pegasus — some of the highest honors students can receive at UCF. Graham plans on participating in Grad Walk on campus later this month to celebrate her accomplishments.

“It’s been a long and challenging journey but an incredibly rewarding one too,” Graham says. “I’m so thankful for the support that I have received from Dr. Hawthorne and UCF, and I am grateful to the community of Hopkins Village for sharing their experiences and perceptions with me for this research. Looking back, it all started with that one GIS class and a professor who saw my potential and gave me an opportunity to reach for the stars.”

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