Sci. Sit-Down: Q&A with Jason VanHorn


Photo by David Fitch.

Every few weeks, Chimes publishes an interview with a science division professor to get to know them: their personalities, their research and their aspirations. This week, we sat down with Jason VanHorn, a professor in the geography department who specializes in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and cartography.

Among VanHorn’s recent projects is a GIS application, released in September, which is intended to allow recently released prisoners to easily locate community resources. VanHorn hopes to help these people reintegrate into wider society and is considering expanding capabilities to other counties.

Chimes: What’s new with you?

VanHorn: Having my fourth child in November. My family is growing. That’s exciting.

I’ve fallen in love with writing. I’ve spent the last year working on fiction writing. I feel strong and capable in the academic realm, not nearly as much in fiction writing. I’ve spent this last year working hard to improve, and now, I’ve written a novel! It’s a middle-grade fiction novel and it’s moving towards publication, which will be fun.
I’m excited how storytelling can help really advance my academic work. I think it’s already advanced my lecturing and my classroom work just as I think about how do I incorporate the concepts of storytelling into my classroom and engage my students more effectively. Stories are easy to consume and understand, and we’re surrounded with them.

Chimes: Can you tell me about your research?

VanHorn: The Liberia project is a five-year project that explores the spatial dimensions of clean water and its impact on health and demographics for Liberians. We are working with a company called Sawyer, who is granting us a partnership. They are aggressive in providing a water filter to every household in Liberia over the next five years. The Geo department is working with Sociology and with Math on this as a collaborative project, all under the Calvin Clean Water Institute. We receive the survey data and we’re able to map where the filters are.

We’re able to see then this really dramatic shift in health related to clean water and map it over time. Over the next 10 years, we’re expecting it to change pretty dramatically as many, many households have access to clean water instead of the 80-some percent that are drawing it from the rivers and groundwater.
The Calvin Prison Initiative work continues. I have been working with students over the past two years on the development of this [GIS] app and to see it come together and released this last month was really exciting. And it’s being used. It could be really exciting to be a resource for building, really, independence for our returning citizens.

Chimes: What is your favorite research snack?

VanHorn: I like coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, and probably my favorite reserach snack is a cheese stick. You know the string cheese? I like string cheese. Something that’s not messy. I like peanuts too. Sometimes I go bum some peanuts off another faculty member down the hall.

Chimes: Have you ever wanted to quit the work that you do?

VanHorn: No, I have never wanted to quit the work that I do. When I was exploring: What do I pound the table over? What am I passionate about? I found that through ministry experience, actually, that I really wanted to work with college students.

And so as I began to pray and explore that possibility, it seemed like the Lord continued to answer these prayers again and again and again. Just as I saw answers to prayer, I think I became more encouraged and just saw God at work. I feel like I’m called to the work that I do and see God at work all the time, working in students’ lives and through my own life.

I don’t see myself really doing anything different. I mean, there’s always innovation and change within this work, but in terms of working and academics and at the collegiate level doing geography and doing it here at Calvin in an environment that encourages deep thought and Christian integration — there’s value here in exploring those questions about Christianity, faith and discipline. It’s so valued here. So yeah, as long as Calvin will have me. I’m excited to be here.

Chimes: What gives you your energy and spark?

VanHorn: Yeah, my mom wants to know too. I really don’t know. You know, I’ve always been an excited young man and pretty passionate. I let my heart live on my sleeve. It’s just who I am.

I get excited about things and [am] passionate about things. I’m a high-energy person. My children are high-energy kids. I’m sure I was really annoying at times as a kid. With so much energy bouncing off the walls, practically.

Chimes: When you were young, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?

VanHorn: Like any kid, I wanted to be a baseball player. And like any kid, I threw around  all kinds of fun things about being a doctor or a policeman or a president or things of that nature.

But when I was in seventh grade, I did an occupational report, and I had just come through a social studies unit that required us to make a map and write a story about the history of that place and its people.

Well, I still have my map of Empire Island. I don’t have the story any longer. I don’t know where that went. But I paid such close attention to the detail of mapmaking that when I was asked to do an occupational report and explore a potential job as a seventh grader, I investigated “cartographer.” I found out that it’s a real job.

And when I found myself at college, not really being satisfied with the major that I had chosen, I just revisited those things that I was passionate about and what I really loved and it was mapping and thinking about place and space and interactions that occur there.

Chimes: What do you do at the end of a day when you go home to relax?

VanHorn: I am a workaholic. There’s no doubt about that. I spend time with my family. We homeschool our kids, so we’re very tight with our kids, and when I go home, I’m usually spending time with my kids and enjoying them.

There are many things that I do that are recreational, but most people would probably think of them as work. So I continue working, but I’m recreating. I’m writing. I love to write now. It’s work, of course, but to me it’s just such an exciting prospect. It’s rare that I don’t write each day.

I am very much into do-it-yourself projects. I love woodworking. I love home improvement. Again, this is work, but for me? It’s recreation.

I enjoy social media a lot. I interact with alumni, with friends on Facebook. I am active on Twitter in a writing community, and so I participate in that. I enjoy that quite a bit.

I, like most people, love to read, so I try and read a lot. I love Netflix. I love documentaries especially on Netflix. And then I watch baseball, occasionally.

Surprisingly enough, my three teams are all in the playoffs: the Yankees, the Cubs and the Astros. I predicted the Cubs defeating the Astros this year in the World Series. I think if they both make it, the Astros are actually going to beat the Cubs.

This interview has been condensed and edited.