Sofia Fasullo is, at heart, a planner. Her ears perk at the mention of roads and neighborhoods, and she will enthusiastically discuss with you how the layouts of grocery stores in Italy relate to a different cultural relationship with food.
And if you really want to get her talking, ask her about TEDxBinghamtonUniversity, which she’s helped organize over the past three years, including the first virtual and hybrid conferences during the coronavirus pandemic.
“My main passion and motivation is community development,” said the Binghamton University senior, a double major in statistics and geography. “I’ve always thought about space and how people live, how they’re connected.”
While running with his track team through the streets of Albany, Fasullo had the opportunity to explore the many neighborhoods of his hometown. Her curiosity for space and communities also took root during trips to visit her mother’s family in Italy, where she noticed the differences in the layout of towns and the size of grocery stores. With the right amount of planning, she realized that cities can be more affordable, sustainable and green.
Also a member of the campus Running Club, Fasullo is academically proven in the environmental visualization component of First-Year Research Immersion, for which she has done research. landmine detection methods using drones and geographic information systems (GIS), a tool often used by urban planners.
Her double majors fit perfectly into this job, giving her the knowledge she needs to visualize data and work with GIS mapping; her research in landmine detection has also led to a minor in the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities, she said.
During his final semester in the FRI program, Timothy DeSmet, Assistant Research Professor of Geological Sciences and Environmental Studies, gave students the opportunity to co-author a paper with him that was later published in The Journal of Conventional Weapons Destruction; Fasullo is one of the co-authors. She and her classmates also won the People’s Choice Award at the Geography Department’s GIS Day, following her first place finish the previous year for the landmine project.
DeSmet put Fasullo in touch with a lab at Villanova University that is studying the use of specialized robots for mine clearance. Because drones are limited by vegetation and other visual barriers when it comes to mine detection, Villanova’s team is working to develop scanning units that could pass under vegetation, Fasullo explained.
After a 2020 summer trip to Cambodia was scuttled due to the pandemic, Fasullo ended up working virtually from the largely empty Binghamton campus, in the Geophysics and Remote Sensing Laboratory of the Department of Geological Sciences.
“It was actually one of my favorite summers. I really learned a lot of skills because I had the time and the space, and I was put to work doing field tests and data processing,” said Fasullo.
Last summer, she trained another student to continue her work and visited the robotics team at Villanova. She and the team also presented at American Geophysical Union Conference last December in New Orleans, where she had the opportunity to meet other scientists.
Plan the future
Planning TEDxBinghamtonUniversity doesn’t require mapping or math, but it does come with its own kind of complexity. The annual conference relies on a large team of student volunteers to find speakers, sell tickets, organize the event from behind the scenes and more.
During her freshman year on campus, Fasullo loved Binghamton’s TEDx event and jumped at the chance to plan the next one. The coronavirus had other plans.
“Two weeks before the event happened, the lockdown happened and we all went home,” she said.
But the TEDx team wasn’t going to give up. It held its first virtual conference in September, filming the speakers at home while the on-campus student speaker delivered a live lecture to a limited, socially distant audience.
The following March, TEDx was back on campus, but switched to all-student programming. Eighty Bearcats applied and eight had the opportunity to share their ideas with their peers on the Anderson Center stage.
Fasullo remained on the organizing committee for her senior year, giving her the chance to experience a more traditional TEDx event with programming that included students, alumni, and professionals, as well as student performances and interactive exhibits. She was the only director to return, making her the most experienced organizer – a daunting prospect at first.
“One of our speakers was an Olympic fencer, so we asked the fencing club to show the different swords, how you hold them and what they mean,” she said. “One of the students from the Binghamton Fencing Club introduced the Olympic fencer on stage. The goal is that we try to involve our community.
She was also involved in the campus community in other ways: jogging the streets with the Running Club, playing clarinet in the orchestra, and playing bass in a rock band with her housemates.
While at Binghamton, Fasullo also forged meaningful relationships with many of his teachers. As part of the Binghamton University Scholars Program, she discovered Istanbul with Associate Professor of History Kent Schull; the class also included spring break in the Turkish city. GIS Campus Core Facility Associate Director Kevin Heard gave fascinating lectures on census data. And through Associate Professor of Mathematics Laura Anderson, Fasullo also helped found BingAWM, the Binghamton chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics during its first year.
And she can’t forget DeSmet, who opened the door to so many opportunities.
“He has this great energy; he really cares about his students,” she said.
For his part, DeSmet considers Fasullo to be one of the most inspiring students he has ever mentored, and not just because of her academic excellence.
“She works extremely hard with tremendous positive energy, and is dedicated and passionate about helping others by improving the world on a community scale,” he said. “It was amazing to watch her grow into the inspiring scientist that she has become.”
Fasullo ends his stay in Binghamton with a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence. She will head to the University of Pennsylvania for a dual master’s degree in urban planning and urban spatial analysis. She will take advantage of the chance to live in a big city for a while, to get a different perspective on urban planning networks. After that, the horizon is open for planning.
“I really hope to be in a position that puts communities first and ensures that communities have a say in their own development,” she said.