Leonie Barkakati has a bachelor’s degree in Family, Youth, Community Sciences (FYCM) from the University of Florida. She is a graduate student in the civil engineering program specializing in transportation. Her advisor is Dr. Xilei Zhao.
Barkakati is the first graduate student in the transportation program to come from FYCS. Making the jump from a non-engineering discipline can be challenging, but the truth is that there is more that unites both areas than separates them. Community organizing and sustainable transportation systems are just some examples. Barkakati explains.
“I was trying to decide between two or three engineering fields, but transportation won me over because I could clearly see the connections between community organizing, something I did a lot in FYCS, and transportation,” she said. “Transportation engineers prioritize safe travel environments, accessible transportation systems, sustainability, and giving the public opportunities to participate in decision making, among other things. These were all values that resonated with me.”
Barkakati is excelling in her civil engineering studies. Recently, she was awarded the H.W. College of Engineering Glenn & Deborah Renwick Scholarship. The scholarship is given to master’s students who have shown a strong background in academics and research. Barkakati said that crossing disciplines from FYCS into civil engineering has come with some challenges, but she made the decision to switch with a strategy and goal in mind.
“I want my career focus to be sustainability and reducing climate change,” Barkakati said. “There are many ways to do this, but there are some big opportunities in transportation, and that is exciting to me.”
As an educator and community organizer, reducing climate change was always her goal. She said experience in the education field and involvement in her community supplied her with knowledge in the social and relational aspects of climate change. By pursuing a master’s degree in engineering with a focus on transportation, Barkakati believes she will gain the quantitative and technical skills necessary to embark on her mission of making the world a healthier, equitable, and safer place.
But, Barkakati is not new to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). After graduating from UF’s FYCS program, she taught middle and high school in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Holyoke is a low-income school district. While teaching at Holyoke, she noticed that students rarely got a change to explore STEM concepts. To address this issue, Barkakati created a program to introduce students to STEM.
“I made an introductory curriculum that taught students about the scientific method, putting basic labs together, and learning lab skills like how to use a microscope,” she said. “I also taught some college algebra, geometry, and calculus.”
When not immersed in her studies, Barkataki is “obsessed” with her succulent plants. “They are rapidly growing into a garden,” she said. She also practices a Japanese martial art called Aikido.