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Meet the graduates: Fran Hutton Lee

Fran Hutton Lee, MPS'17, parlayed her study of geographic information systems into a one-of-a-kind job working for the town of Medway, Massachusetts. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University
Fran Hutton Lee, MPS’17, is one of nearly 1,500 students who will receive degrees at the College of Professional Studies’ graduation ceremony on Friday at Matthews Arena. Here, the 60-year-old lifelong learner explains how she parlayed her study of geographic information systems into a one-of-a-kind job working for the town of Medway, Massachusetts.

You graduated from college in 1979, with undergraduate degrees in history, Latin, and Spanish, and have taught English as a Second Language since 1980. What inspired you to return to school more than 30 years later to pursue your master’s degree in geographic information systems?

I’ve loved maps since I was a child. When I was 8 years old, my father gave me a thick leather-bound atlas as a Christmas gift. It didn’t only include maps—it featured facts and figures about every country, from their imports and exports to their languages and currencies. As a kid, I was a voracious reader. I would have my book open and my atlas open and the Encyclopedia Britannica open, trying to figure out whether the places I was reading about were real.

About a decade ago, I started working in municipal assessing for the town of Attleboro, Massachusetts, where I became known as the “map queen.” If something needed mapping, I’d figured out how to do it. When Google Maps was released, I think I spent a month exploring it, looking at all the countries. And when I discovered I could get a degree in geographic information systems, I started working toward my GIS graduate certificate through the College of Professional Studies. I finished that program in 2012 and began the master’s program a few years later.

You parlayed your newfound expertise in geographic information systems into a full-time job working as the first-ever GIS coordinator for Medway, Massachusetts. What will your work allow the town to do that it’s never been able to do before?

There are several benefits. The first is that I’m able to make sure that the maps for each of the town’s departments are consistent and up to the same standards. The second is that I’m able to make very detailed maps, rather than “quick and dirty” ones. I’ve only been in this position for nine months, but my plan is to sit down with each department and see how we can incorporate GIS into day-to-day work. Since I’ve started, I’ve been using ArcGIS, a cloud-based mapping platform, to create dozens of maps, from zoning maps and fire district maps to parade route maps and sewer line maps. I’ve also been analyzing data, looking, for example, to find the best locations for new development projects. GIS is a growing field. But it’s one of those things that every town, state, and business is going to need to incorporate sooner or later.

Your capstone project focused on book mapping. First of all, what, exactly, is book mapping? Second, what was the particular thrust of your project?

Book mapping is a novel concept. Aside from myself, no one else is doing this on any kind of grand scale. For my project, I used a story map application that I found on ArcGis to map several novels, including the award-winning children’s book Walk Two Moons. The book focuses on a little girl named Sal who takes a road trip from Euclid, Ohio, to Lewiston, Idaho, making many stops along the way to real-life places. For each stop, I created a map, which allows users to see photos of the spot and get some information about it too. This is almost exactly what I was doing with my books, my atlas, and my encyclopedia when I was a girl. I see this as a fun and educational tool for students, teachers, and parents, and I’d love for it to be incorporated into educational programming. I’m also planning on using this work to enter the Esri Storytelling with Maps Contest.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

What advice do you have for other lifelong learners who want to pursue an advanced degree?

You’re never too old to go back to school and learn something new. When I was doing post-graduate work in linguistics, I had a landlady who had returned to school when she was 60, earned her law degree, and was still practicing law in her 80s. She was a fascinating woman who inspired me.