Eugenia Sarafova and her passion about geography

Eugenia Sarafova is a co-founder of Geograf BG – a geography festival. She is a lecturer at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” and is an expert in GIS and remote sensing. In 2016, Eugenia became part of the largest and most prestigious selection of young global leaders – Forbes Bulgaria „30 under 30“. And recently her big dream came true – she founded a store for geographic paper maps – Pixel Company. The idea is people to use the maps in order to decorate their homes, to remind them of their hometown or favorite trip, to bring comfort and good mood at home.

I interviewed her in April 2019 during TEDx Sofia, where she was one of the lecturers.

1. You are cofounder of the geography platform geograf.bg. What was your motivation for creating this and what was the reaction of the public once it became reality?

– Fundamentally it boils down to my passion for geography. When I was little I would always look up to the stars and dreamed of becoming an astronaut and exploring the planets. This led me to the National gymnasium of science and mathematics, where I studied geography as my profile. I completed a higher education in the same field in the Sofia University. During my time there I encountered a serious problem – there were no Bulgarian sources – books, or otherwise, that we could use to gather information about the novelties in our field. We were forced to educate ourselves with only our lectures, which, frankly did not provide the most current information on the topics. Meanwhile ecology, cartography and technology were moving forward and changing. Gradually with a costudent of mine – Dimitar Zhelev, we began pondering upon the idea of creating a website, where we would post the latest news from the world of geography. With time we bought a domain, but nobody had time to fill it with content. That was the state of affairs until I got pregnant. I was sick most of the time, so I was forced to stay at home. This is when I started the serious work on geograf.bg. It became popular very quickly, most likely due to the public hunger for more information on these topics, which had not been satisfied up until then. People began sending us letters, thanking us for our “gifts”.

2. And then you began giving lessons in geography?

– Yes. We started with lessons for students applying for undergraduate program at the university. It turned out that there was not a lot of demand for that, since the interest in this field has lowered drastically since the time I was about to enter university. The entry level at the being so low that anybody could apply without any lessons, didn’t help either. That’s why we focused our attention to the kids between 5 and 11-years old, hoping to spark their interest and help them fall in love with geography as we were. They are generally interested in dinosaurs, planets, Мartians and that was the reason they came to us. We, at geograf.bg, play with lego, make experiments – volcanoes and accelerated models of rock dissolution – we are having fun while we are studying.

3. So the interest in this lessons is quite huge. Are both children and parents equally enthusiastic?

– A lot of parents are looking for something like this, because their children are interested in such things. Conversely, it happens sometimes for an ambitions mother to sign up her kid, while he/she doesn’t want anything to do with this. We manage to spark interest in some of these kids, but not always.

4. You are teaching at university as well. Could you tell me about the interest of your students in the area of the geography?

As I said, the entry level is pretty low. From my experience there are two groups of students – the first consist of people who applied for geography because they didn’t have any other options to their liking. The rest, although a minority, are really interested in geography. We help them apply for internships in big companies, in order to see the practical side of the field – studying hurricanes, development of cartography applications, etc. For me it is most important to show people that geography is not only about knowing how long is a certain river, it is an integral part of our life – GPS, sport applications would not be possible without it. It gives us the possibility of creating innovations, even from the most trivial things. That’s what I’m trying to teach my students and some of them really get hyped.

5. Geograf.bg is responsible for the first Geography Festival in Bulgaria. It is conducted every year, but every time in a different city. How do you chose your next destination? Is there a difference in interest across different parts of the country?

– Similar festival has been held for years in Russia. We liked the idea a lot, so we decided to realize it here in Bulgaria. Since Sofia has been a center for science events in the past few years, we decided to go to move away from the capital. There is interest in science and especially geography all across the country. People are hungry for such events. The main focus of our festival is school students – there are numerous activities and competitions. However, plenty of our visitors are older people with interest in geography. It seems that each year we get more and more visitors. Bureaucracy is hard on us, though – we need a lot of approvals by local governments, school directors etc. This is why we often chose cities where we have some contact person, who can help us deal with the administrative issues.

6. And why do you think communicating science is important?

– Because only through science, we could understand the world around us. Young people need to understand that scientists are not some book worms locked in laboratories. I work in a big corporation and wouldn’t even describe myself as a scientist, but geography is my passion. I wish I could make more people as passionate about it as I am.

7. Do you see any of your students following your steps in communicating science?

– It’s not that simple. Not so many people have the character traits necessary to speak in public and to spread their knowledge. This could be learned, but some people have it naturally. I don’t know if my students do, but there are some people in Bulgaria already trying to copy the Geography festival and organize similar events. So the communicators of geography in particular are multiplying.

8. What do you think about Sofia Science Festival?

– I took part only once, but I quite like the idea. It’s a good place to learn something about science, have fun and spend some time with your family.

9. Have you noticed an increased interest in science events lately?

– Oh, yes, definitely! Science events are multiplying all the time and there’s a big audience. This is a certain indicator that the society is giving a lot of attention to the subjects of science.

10. What do you think about the future of science in Bulgaria?

– I think that there is a future, but people need to open their eyes and think outside of their box, be more open to innovation. We live in a world of technology. What’s happening in schools today is pointless – teachers teaching bare facts, hoping for children to be interested. Education needs to move forward with the times, be more interactive and practice-oriented, so it could be more appealing to the youngsters, to spark their hunger for information and raise people affinity to science.

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