USGIF GEOINT Certificate candidate TyRik Thompson isn’t afraid to dream big. The geography student’s goals are simple and noble—to make a difference in the lives of those around him and to “help change the world for the better.” Now, his mission is to find a specialty under the multifaceted GEOINT umbrella that will best allow him to realize those aspirations.
Thompson began his education at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina as a computer science major. He had been fascinated by STEM-related topics such as 3D modeling and animation since early high school, but while computer science as a field of study provoked his interest, it didn’t fully satisfy him as a prospective career. In fall 2015, Thompson needed a general elective to round out his schedule. He chose a principles of geography course taught by Dr. Rakesh Malhotra, a longtime USGIF volunteer.
“[Professor Malhotra] had me come to his GIS class and I liked what was going on there,” Thompson said. “I began to realize I really enjoyed the aspect of being connected to the world. By that I mean peoples, their habits, cultures, concepts, and philosophies, and understanding the reasons why people do the things that they do.”
Thompson changed his major to geography the next semester, and later adopted a second: intelligence studies. In fall 2016, he enrolled in USGIF’s GEOINT Certificate program.
“The program is a great way to gain a broader skill set, and gives me a better foundation to compete in this job field.”
During that first GIS course, Dr. Malhotra, who now teaches at North Carolina Central University, emerged as a mentor to Thompson and encouraged him to apply as a student assistant for USGIF’s GEOINT 2016 Symposium in Tampa, Fla. Thompson was accepted and described the experience as a “gateway to what I should expect from this field.”
The following year, he brought a project from an advanced GIS course to GEOINT 2017 in San Antonio, Texas, for the student poster competition. His project visualized the spatial distribution of “Poke Points” in the mobile augmented reality app Pokemon Go, and used features such as population density and local landmarks to show how developer Niantic determined where to hide Pokemon. The scope of the project was simple, but it familiarized Thompson with various mapping techniques.
Those experiences helped Thompson land an internship at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in summer 2018, where he applied his geospatial analysis skills to real-world problem sets.
In September, USGIF sponsored Thompson’s travel to Washington, D.C., to attend the Intelligence Community Academic Research Symposium, where he sat on a panel discussing STEM education and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Thompson shared his experience as an HBCU student entering the intelligence workforce as well as the story of how he discovered geospatial science.
“People told me that my story touched them. It meant a lot to know that people want to hear what I’ve been through,” Thompson said. “[The experience] helped me realize that what I’m doing means something and gave me a boost in confidence.”
Upon graduation, Thompson plans on jumping right back into academia. He is researching dual master’s degree programs at Pennsylvania State University and George Mason University—which are both USGIF-accredited—as early frontrunners. He hopes to supplement a master’s degree in GIS with a second, more specialized master’s degree, but hasn’t yet chosen a specific secondary subject.
“That’s a question I’m trying to answer right now,” Thompson said. “I’ve got to start specializing. A few things have really intrigued me, like remote sensing. I also want to dive into hybrid GIS-3D modeling.”
Thompson added he also hopes to earn his Ph.D.
“[A Ph.D. is] a life goal for me. I want to be the first in my family to go that far. I came from a small town in a small county, and I want to show that if you work hard enough, you can do anything, no matter where you came from.”
Headline Image: A visualized spatial distribution of “Poke Points” hidden around the Santa Monica Pier in the mobile augmented reality app Pokemon Go. Courtesy of TyRik Thompson.