Student Spotlight

From point to pixel: New paths in a changing world

Nathan Tesfayi poses with one of the communications antennas used by the small satellite lab on the roof of the Geography Geology building.
Nathan Tesfayi with one of the communications antennas used by the small satellite lab on the roof of the Geography Geology building. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

Student Nathan Tesfayi explores novel solutions to environmental issues

Nathan Tesfayi’s story is about resilience and big ambitions. Born in State College, Pennsylvania, to Ethiopian parents, his life journey has taken him from living in Ethiopia to studies at the University of Georgia, research with NASA, and more.

Tesfayi’s interest in the environment was sparked during his AP environmental sciences class at Shiloh High School in Gwinnett County.

At UGA, he majors in environmental resource science within the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, where he has been mentored by assistant professor Nadita Gaur, his faculty advisor. She encouraged him to join the Student Airborne Research Program, SARP, a summer internship program at NASA.

Nathen Tesfayi with other members of NASA's SARP program.

Tesfayi along with other SARP participants gain experience with NASA’s flying labs. (Submitted photo)

SARP is an eight-week program where students get to gain valuable hands-on experience with airborne data collection onboard one of NASA’s flying labs. This is coupled with additional fieldwork to create complex data sets.

“Dr. Gaur was in the first class of SARP ever, and now I’m in the first class of SARP East,” Tesfayi said. “It’s kind of funny how it worked out, to be honest.”

Tesfayi’s work with SARP took him to the Chesapeake Bay area in Newport News, Virginia, where he worked with an aquatic research team to conduct water quality measurements via aircraft, boat and on foot. After careful data collection, he spent time meeting with local stakeholders, including local Chickahominy and Pamunkey tribes, as well as analyzing and showcasing data for future use in local conservation efforts.

Now, as his undergraduate studies come to an end, Tesfayi has graduate school in his sights.

“I think there’s so much more to learn,” he said. “One of the things that I got from all these internships that I’ve done is how much there is to learn, and then you understand that your undergraduate education is just the tiniest investigation into that.”

His planned area of study is remote sensing, where he will be using satellite and drone imagery to collect environmental data, an area in which he already has some experience from a prior project on flood mapping.

After graduate school, he would like to pursue a career with a federal agency where he can continue doing fieldwork and data processing that makes a difference in the world with climate data.

Tesfayi works with the SARP program in the Chesapeake Bay area.

Tesfayi conducted water quality measurements in the Chesapeake Bay area. (Submitted photo)

His advice to any incoming students: Try to experience as much as possible, and don’t let your preconceived notions get in the way of an opportunity.

“I think it’s important to realize that you have valuable things to bring to the table. Recognize your own unique strengths and potential,” he said. “If there’s something that you’re interested in, even if you have some doubts, go for it.”

He also recognizes that it’s always important to find your community, something that is a huge part of the student culture at UGA.

“Community is a very big thing for me. EESA, Ethiopian Eritrean Student Association, has been very important to me,” Tesfayi said. “You’re never going to be represented everywhere, but finding a place where you can not only be yourself but also see yourself represented is like a home away from home.”