| by Christopher Donohue

Portrait of Joseph Holler

Joseph Holler is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Middlebury, who has taught in the department since 2013. Holler instructs Human Geography with GIS (GEOG 120), a popular Global Health methods class. He did not always know that he would be teaching geography, but instead leveraged a liberal arts education to arrive at his current profession.


Holler attended Ithaca college, initially interested in a combination of computer science and media studies. However, studying abroad on the Semester at Sea program introduced him to a deep interest in becoming “immersed in different global cultures,” and studying “global differences—culturally, economically, and politically.” This led him to tack on a third major, anthropology. Holler remembered wondering, “what do you do with a triple major?” Laughing, he claimed he had absolutely “no clue.” That was until he joined the Peace Corp.

Holler knew that he wanted to leave the U.S. post-graduation, after his time abroad. In the Peace Corp, he instructed math and I.T. at Tanzanian high schools. Again, he was immersed in a completely different culture, where he learned Swahili.

It was during that time that he “discovered geography.” He met an Agricultural Extension Officer using GIS to map locust outbreaks, and their impacts on crops in the region. He was fascinated—it was the perfect combination of his interests in computer technology and data science, while addressing issues of food insecurity. This light bulb moment encouraged him to look into graduate programs in GIS. 

Mapping Social Vulnerability

Professor Holler researches social vulnerability, a term used to describe how certain social groups are disproportionally affected by seemingly random risks such as natural disasters. For example, he explored the impacts of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, where he used insurance claims from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Twitter data to assess the impact of the storm. Holler collected Tweets of victims, discussing the impacts of the hurricane, in order to create a  storymap of those  disproportionally affected by the storm. He is still grappling with how to create a quantitative model that could be validated for other situations. So far, he has not been able to validate these “social vulnerability” indices, as these disasters remain complex, and hard to adapt to other hazardous situations.  This experience highlights the difficulty in reducing complex and multifactorial social vulnerability into an easily measurable metric.  The consolidation of this analysis into a single metric is “quite difficult,” Holler remarked. 

Liberal Arts Education and Global Health

“There are always new, emerging problems,” Holler claims, in the field of global health. These problems’ characteristics and solutions are not already “written in a textbook, ready to be solved.” Therefore, learning to be adaptive and invested in “life-long learning” is absolutely essential for the field of global health, Holler says. He adds that health is intertwined with our “political and economic systems, the environment, and even mass-communication systems.” The open-mindedness that comes from a liberal arts education encourages learners to recognize that issues relating to health are deeply complex. Holler stresses that these skills are essential in preparing for emerging global health issues we are destined to face.

Holler emphasized the importance of GIS in the study of disease spread, and as an important tool for studying global health. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Holler developed an exercise for his GIS class to map the spread of the disease. At that time, risk factors were not clear. Holler hypothesized that young children would be more susceptible to the disease, and subsequently asked students to map out the percentage of population that is children, “presuming that children would be more vulnerable to COVID-19.” Yet, students derived a different story. Instead, Holler exclaimed, the percentage of children in an area was an indicator “that fewer people would have severe outcomes from COVID-19 incidents!” While the exercise disproved Holler’s original hypothesis, the project demonstrates the importance of GIS mapping in the field of global health.

Hopes for the Future

Holler discussed some of his brainstorming course plans for the future. He’s considering teaching a GIS course, specialized for students who have taken an introductory class in R, that would largely be public health oriented in its applications. That course could be debuted in an upcoming J-term. Additionally, he’s considering teaching an advanced methods Spatial Epidemiology course. Nothing is established yet—nevertheless, it’s exciting to hear about potential opportunities for new global health oriented courses in the future here at Middlebury!

Media Contact

This article was featured in the Winter 2023 Global Health Newsletter.

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