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As Geography Chair, Bagchi-Sen Promotes an 'Entrepreneurial' Field

Release Date: December 10, 2010

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Geography is possibly the most interdisciplinary field in the academic world, says Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen, and the job outlook for graduates in the field is good.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Now that the term "interdisciplinary" is practically a prerequisite for federal research funds, geographers are finding that their expertise is a sought-after commodity. That's because geography just might be the most interdisciplinary field in the academic world, according to Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen, chair of the Department of Geography in the University at Buffalo's College of Arts and Sciences.

"Geographers have traditionally read literature from a lot of disciplines so we have a wide understanding of different fields," she says. "I think it has made us more resilient in problem-solving; we tend to look at different perspectives in order to come up with solutions."

That's becoming increasingly valuable, she says.

"If you look at what's being funded, any research question is now so complicated that several disciplines are required to answer it," she says. "More and more, geographers are being sought out to collaborate on various problems."

The UB Department of Geography's historic emphasis on spatial methodologies and geographic information systems has been especially valuable on research applications in environmental, medical, social and economic fields.

Bagchi-Sen has used spatial methodologies in her own research as an urban-economic geographer. At the University of Georgia, where she earned her doctorate, her dissertation was on "Spatial and Temporal Models of Foreign Direct Investment in the United States."

Bagchi-Sen came to UB in 1993 from Michigan State University because of the Department of Geography's international business and world trade focus, still one of just a few geography departments in the country that specialize in this area.

She has served as the department's director of graduate studies and she co-directed the UB Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender.

In May 2009, she was a visiting scholar at the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Goteborg University in Goteborg, Sweden. She spent 2006-07 as a fellow of the American Council on Education in the Chancellor's Office of the University of California-Los Angeles. She also was a fellow in the UB Faculty in Leadership Program, designed to help bridge the gap between faculty and the administration.

Bagchi-Sen has studied how foreign companies from India, for example, have boosted their investment in the U.S., evolving from manufacturers of generic drugs to companies with research and development expertise through the acquisition of other firms. She also has studied how biotech firms innovate and, she says, it is very hard to define what makes them successful.

"Every state and every university tries to capture the biomedical research that is going on and to see if it can do translational research," she says. "But it's hard to measure success. What are the indicators of success for knowledge-based companies? How do you measure economic development effects of these companies? Biotech companies may have revenue, but they may be at very early stages of product development, which limits economic development." According to Bagchi-Sen, more students are being drawn to geography because it offers a wide variety of quantitative and qualitative tools to address complicated questions.

That broad perspective comes from the nature of geography itself, she says, noting that the discipline is categorized as both a social and a physical science. While human geography -- Bagchi-Sen's focus -- examines urban, economic, social and political geography, those who study physical geography focus on earth systems science, water resources, hydrology, forest transition, conservation and other environmental issues.

And while UB's Department of Geography is among the smaller ones in the nation, with approximately 15 faculty members, Bagchi-Sen notes that it has one of the nation's largest master's degree programs in geography as well as a relatively large doctoral program. In addition, she says, the job outlook for geographers is good.

"Even during this economic downtown, there are positions," she says, "especially academic positions and those in applied geography."

UB's geography faculty members represent numerous subfields, nationalities and many are women. Out of a total of about 15, including one joining the department next month, six were hired since 2006, she notes. The department is highly productive in research, she says.

"Geographers are entrepreneurial to begin with," she says, "and nearly all of our faculty members currently have external research support."

But it's not just the discipline that fosters the collaborative nature of UB's geographers, it's the institution, too, she says, describing UB as "a very rich, intellectual environment.

"The great thing about UB is it doesn't have silos," she says. "UB helps you seek out intellectual hot spots. That's often not the case at other institutions."

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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Ellen Goldbaum
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