Student Spotlight with Sara (Denka) Durgan

Sara Durgan is an FAU alumna who graduated in Spring 2020 with their Ph.D. in Geosciences. For the past five months, Sara has been a Remote Sensing & Unmanned Aircraft System UAS Data Scientist with AECOM Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Tell us about your position.

I am part of the Information Management Solutions team within AECOM Environment. I support a multitude of drone and GIS/Remote Sensing projects. The interesting part of my position is that I get to act as an interdisciplinary data scientist over a wide array of disciplines such as environmental science, remediation, transportation, and power. I really enjoy gaining experience in fields that I have never worked in and aiding in the development of geospatial analysis tools for environmental solutions. The chance to fly several different drones and sensors in a variety of locations is also very fun!

How did FAU help prepare you for this role?

The main reason I was offered this position was due to my very relevant dissertation research and experience as a drone pilot and remote sensing scientist. The coursework I completed during my time at FAU was also helpful to introduce me to a multitude of topics in geosciences, specifically GIS/remote sensing concepts and tools.

What did you enjoy most about FAU?

FAU was the third university I attended during my educational career as I completed my bachelor's at the University of Miami and my master's at the University of California, Santa Barbara. What made my experience at FAU unique was the community including both faculty and students. During my time at FAU, I was an Instructor for GEA2000 World Geography where I taught around 200 undergraduate students a semester (I currently still teach this course). That experience was very special to me because it allowed me to get to know many of FAU's exceptional undergraduate students and provide guidance on their future career paths. Experiencing FAU as both a student and instructor made me feel very ingrained within the University and that I made a positive contribution.

What research did you perform while at FAU?

My dissertation research focused on the use of drones for coastal wetland monitoring and mapping. This project introduced me to advanced techniques in remote sensing including photogrammetry, machine learning, and object-based image analysis as well as environmental field techniques like conducting vegetation surveys. My research had a heavy fieldwork component; therefore I relied a lot on the help of my classmates and friends. Everyone in the Department of Geosciences was very supportive, especially my advisor Dr. Caiyun Zhang, who was essential in guiding the development of my research ensuring that it was cutting-edge yet achievable. I also received a lot of support from Dr. Sudhagar Nagarajan and Dr. Hongbo Su in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geomatics Engineering who helped me with the equipment necessary to conduct my research. My research would not have been successful without the mentorship of the incredible faculty at FAU.

What tips would you give to current students in the College of Science looking to pursue a career in your field?

If you are a Ph.D. student looking to pursue a career in environmental consulting it is vital to gain professional experience in the form of an internship or part-time position to supplement your degree. I also suggest choosing a research topic that allows you to obtain the skills necessary for your target position and seek related professional certifications because often they are easier to obtain while you are a student. Networking is also extremely important and will open doors to possibilities you may not have considered. Take time to cultivate relationships with faculty, people in your industry, as well as your classmates. Don't be afraid to reach out and introduce yourself to people you admire in your field, they will likely be happy to hear from you and can offer important advice.