Russell G. Congalton

Graduate Faculty Mentoring Award

Professor of Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems
College of Life Sciences and Agriculture

Bird's eye view


Russell G. Congalton

Russ Congalton discovered his vocation "completely by accident" after applying to graduate school at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

"I was asked if I wanted to do a project evaluating how good the vegetation landcover maps made from satellite imagery were. Nobody had really looked at that before," Congalton recalls. He took a look and, 14 statistics courses later, went on to become internationally known for developing the statistical tools needed to gauge the accuracy of landcover maps made from "remotely sensed" satellite and aircraft imagery.

Accident? Perhaps, but years spent with his father watching the New York Rangers skate at Madison Square Garden may have helped incubate the career.

"We were in the very last row behind the Ranger's goalie. You could reach up and touch the ceiling," says Congalton recalling the nosebleed section where he and his dad perched season after season. Not the best seats in the house, but this satellite-like view did help the boy learn how to read the action from on high.

Today, Congalton, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources, is a leader in the field of "computerized mapping" using the tools of remote sensing, photogrammetry (aerial photography), and geographic information systems or GIS to solve natural resource problems.

In Elements of Photo Interpretation, one of the four courses he teaches graduates and undergraduates, Congalton walks the UNH campus with his students and helps them compare what they're looking at on the ground with aerial photographs of the same area. It's an exercise, he says, that teaches students "how to walk" before they tackle the more challenging elements of satellite imagery and GIS data. "It's a very hands-on course," he says.

Congalton, it could be said, has a very hands-on approach to his teaching and has dedicated much time and effort over the years shepherding graduate students through coursework and into careers. And for that, he was selected as the inaugural recipient of the Graduate Faculty Mentoring Award for Excellence.

"Russ was there to encourage me every step of the way. He gave me just the right balance of guidance, direction, and autonomy," recalls former master's degree student Lucie Plourde, now a research scientist specializing in remote sensing at the UNH Institute for the Study or Earth, Oceans, and Space. Plourde adds, "His door was always open and he even made his home phone number available to me and his other advisees just to be sure we could always reach him."

Indeed, at Congalton's James Hall office, which is peppered with Ranger's paraphernalia, the door is always open and visitors are always welcome. Says Mimi Becker, associate professor of natural resources who, like Plourde, wrote a letter of support for Congalton's nomination, "His mentoring style is quite personal. He regularly meets with his graduate students for the sharing of ideas, the solving of problems, or just to talk. I have been invited on more than one occasion to share a dinner at Russ's house with his new graduate students as he gets to know them better."

Although the Graduate Faculty Mentoring Award is new to the Excellence program, Congalton has been actively mentoring graduate students for all of his 15 years at UNH, nearly 10 of which as the department's master's degree coordinator. He currently has 12 M.S. and Ph.D. graduate students—"about eight too many," he jokes—which is a normal load for Congalton.

Says Bill McDowell, chair of the Department of Natural Resources, "Russ has consistently been one of the most sought-after graduate advisors in our department. He has high standards and expectations, and this attracts and inspires highly motivated students who excel under his guidance."

—David Sims