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Canada’s Esri Young Scholar found validation and motivation at the UC

How do you get the most out of attending the Esri User Conference? For Maja Kucharczyk, the answer seems to be to attend in as many different capacities as possible: as Canada’s Esri Young Scholar, a student assistant, and a presenter. It may keep you very busy, but that means you’ll have a lot left to see next year!

The prize for the students chosen as Esri Young Scholars each year is a trip to the Esri User Conference in San Diego, when the UC is an in-person event. However, when we announced the 2022 competition for Canada’s Esri Young Scholar at the beginning of the year, Omicron was sweeping through the country and there was still ambivalence towards in-person events. So, we opted to offer this year’s Young Scholar a cash bursary instead of the trip.

But as it turns out, Maja Kucharczyk, the 2022 winner of the Esri Young Scholar Award in Canada, had found another way to secure a trip to the UC. Two ways, in fact: as a student assistant and as a presenter in a user session. I contacted Maja, via email, to find out what it was like to be at a big conference again and what she saw at the UC, in and around her student assistant duties and other time commitments.

Was the Esri UC the first large event you’ve attended since the start of the pandemic? How did you feel being in a huge crowd of people again?

Yes, it was! I haven’t done much traveling in the past couple of years – just a trip to visit my family in Chicago. This was also my first time at an in-person Esri event. The really neat part about my experience was that I was there as a student assistant (with 55 other students and recent grads), so I got to see the convention centre a few days before the big crowds arrived: relatively quiet, empty, and still being set up prior to Day 1. I feel like this eased us into the busy week ahead. Once the conference began, it definitely felt odd to be among so many people (14k or so attendees), but that quickly dissipated and turned into awe. Never had I been surrounded by so many fellow GIS enthusiasts and seen so much map art and geography décor.

Between the Young Scholars events, your responsibilities as student assistant, and your presentation, you must have been very busy. Is there anything you feel you missed out on or would have liked to have had more time for?

I would have loved to spend more time with all the people I met: the student assistants and our leading team of Esri employees, the Esri Young Scholars from around the world, and GIS students and professionals from Esri and other organizations. The most valuable part of this conference (for me) was the opportunity to meet so many brilliant, inspiring, and likeminded people. I’d love to spend more time on the Expo floor learning about people’s career journeys and various GIS organizations.

A group of student assistants pose for a photo in San Diego’s Little Italy.

Maja with fellow student assistants in downtown San Diego’s Little Italy.

Were there any sessions that you found particularly useful or interesting?

I had an opportunity to work at the Science Symposium, which also gave me a front-row seat to the keynote presentation by Dr. Adrian Gardner. Dr. Gardner (founder and CEO of the non-profit, SmarTech Nexus), spoke about his organization’s use of GIS (among other resources) to advance racial equity in the context of public health, food security, and more. His keynote was hopeful and inspiring.

Another interesting presentation I attended took place on the Expo floor at the OPS Center. It was titled “Emergency Management: Reduce Risk and Build Resilience Using GIS”. Ryan Lanclos, Director of Public Safety Solutions and Disaster Response at Esri, and Shelby Hines, Technical Consultant at Esri, spoke about disaster mitigation using GIS, including a case study in Colorado. I appreciated the software demos, visuals, and overall message that GIS is a powerful tool for curbing the effects of natural hazards.

I had so many other interesting sessions and presentations marked on my calendar, but as you mentioned, my schedule was already packed with student assistant, Esri Young Scholar, and presenter activities! I’ll have to catch these types of presentations at next year’s User Conference.

I’ve heard from past winners that, after meeting at the Education Summit, the Young Scholars tend to spend a lot of time together and sometimes even organize group activities. Was that the case again this year?

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to attend the Education Summit Reception, as it conflicted with a mandatory student assistant orientation dinner. From what I observed, we (the Young Scholars) met for the first time at the Map Gallery Reception on Monday. Many in the group seemed to bond quickly and organized lots of outings throughout the week. I would’ve joined more of the outings if I had more room in my schedule.

Is there one thing that you saw at the UC that you can’t wait to try for yourself or anything from the plenary that particularly caught your interest?

One skill I’m focusing on further developing right now is building web apps. I’m excited to take more Esri training courses on ArcGIS Apps including ArcGIS Dashboards, StoryMaps, Instant Apps, and Experience Builder, the ArcGIS API for JavaScript, and more. I believe this skill will be very important in my career, allowing me to build custom GIS solutions for organizations. Plus, it seems to require a fun blend of creativity, UX/UI design, technical knowledge, and information communication.

At the afternoon plenary session, I was excited to learn about CA Nature, a collection of web apps created by the California Natural Resources Agency. CA Nature contains story maps, map-centric data exploration tools, and a Conservation Opportunities Modeler – all of which support California’s commitment to the global 30x30 movement: a pledge (signed by over 100 countries to date) to protect at least 30% of Earth’s land and ocean areas by 2030.

Another web app that caught my attention was introduced by Deanne Criswell, FEMA Administrator and plenary keynote speaker. FEMA’s National Risk Index web app displays natural-hazard-related risk, expected annual loss, social vulnerability, and community resilience scores for each US county and census tract. Users can create reports for individual locations or compare multiple locations, export data, and learn more about disaster risk.

CA Nature and National Risk Index are fantastic examples of how geospatial data can be visualized, shared, and explored in a web browser to facilitate decision-making related to the challenges of climate change and disasters. Though these specific apps are limited to the United States, they address global issues and can be adapted to other geographies.

You gave a presentation based on your research in the “Hurricane Response and Recovery with GIS” user session at the UC. How did that go and what kind of feedback did you get from the audience?

Presenting my research project was so fun and rewarding. The session had a great turnout. FEMA and Civil Air Patrol gave the first presentation, talking about how Esri technology is supporting their large volunteer image analyst corps for disaster response activities such as damage assessment. Next, I presented my research project, which is an end-to-end ArcGIS Pro workflow for automatically detecting and delineating hurricane roof damage using deep learning and drone imagery. The presentation went well, and members of the audience asked insightful questions at the end. Afterward, I had an opportunity to meet several professionals who work in the disaster management field, including those from the American Red Cross, Dewberry, Esri, and FEMA.

Maja speaks to a UC attendee at the Map Gallery reception while other attendees examine her research poster.

Maja presenting her Young Scholars poster at the Map Gallery Reception.

As a Young Scholar, I was also given the opportunity to present my research poster at the Map Gallery Reception on Day 1 of the conference. This was such an enriching experience, where I was able to speak with students and professionals from various organizations around the world. A major highlight was meeting and chatting with GIS specialists from the US Army Corps of Engineers, who were very kind and complimentary of my work. This meant a lot to me, as my research project is inspired by their program which assesses post-storm roof damage and performs emergency repairs. It was the external validation and motivation I needed to keep going with my work and finish up my PhD studies.

What are you hoping to do after you complete your PhD, and do you think it will include GIS?

Through my doctoral research, I have gained a sobering understanding of the strong connection between human activity and disasters. It’s clear that GIS is necessary for monitoring human activities that impact disaster outcomes, including building homes in hazard zones, destroying hazard buffers such as forests and wetlands, and exacerbating hazard occurrence and intensity with greenhouse gas emissions.

My post-graduate career plans are to apply and continue advancing my GIS skills in the context of climate change and disaster management. This includes addressing disaster symptoms, such as damage to the built and natural environments. I am also eager to tackle disaster root causes, including the aforementioned issues of poor disaster risk management, destruction of natural ecosystems, and greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, I am excited by Esri’s various initiatives in these fields, including the Disaster Response Program, Conservation Program, ArcGIS Living Atlas Indicators of the Planet, and Esri’s partnership with the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UN SDSN) to launch SDGs Today. I am also inspired by the work of Global Forest Watch and Global Fishing Watch – two platforms that monitor deforestation and illegal fishing using satellite remote sensing, other geospatial data, and advanced analytics.

At the User Conference, I spent most of my off-duty time on the Expo floor talking to Esri recruiters, product engineers, solution engineers, and program managers about the opportunities that are available in these areas. I highly recommend the UC Expo to anyone who is curious about career options in GIS!

You used drone imagery in the research you submitted for the EYS competition, but the orthomosaics are pre-processed before you add them to ArcGIS Pro. Have you processed any drone imagery using ArcGIS Drone2Map?

That’s a great observation! Whereas I have used ArcGIS Drone2Map in the past, the drone imagery in my EYS project was pre-processed using Pix4Dmapper software. For a truly end-to-end Esri workflow, I would use Drone2Map. Furthermore, if this workflow was to be adapted to a scaled-up and online environment, the drone images could be uploaded to ArcGIS Image Server to be pre-processed into orthomosaics and further processed using deep learning raster analytics. The resulting roof damage maps could be shared with stakeholders via a web app.

One last question. Your CV is full of publications, presentations, and achievements. What do you do for fun?

Thank you for asking! I love spending time outside with friends – strolling, camping, hiking, skiing, and biking in the city as well as in the beautiful Canadian Rockies. I’m fortunate to live in Calgary, which has tons of green space and is only an hour away from the mountains. Vegan cooking is another hobby of mine; I find it relaxing and creative. In recent years, I’ve become really drawn to reading nonfiction books and memoirs on mental health, personal development, psychology, sociology, and social justice. I just finished Glennon Doyle’s “Untamed”. She touches on so many important topics: LGBTQ+ pride, examining one’s own white privilege, defying gender stereotypes, and more. I look forward to the insights of each new book I pick up – and welcome any book suggestions.

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Specialist with Esri Canada. Her career in GIS started when she came across the Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering program at the University of New Brunswick and thought it sounded interesting. She earned a PhD in Geomatics Engineering, focusing on lidar data classification, and now she supports teaching and learning with ArcGIS at colleges and universities across Canada. Krista particularly enjoys interacting with the students who receive an Esri Canada GIS Scholarship or apply for the Esri Young Scholars Award each year. She also enjoys playing with apps and doing a bit of coding when she has time.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins