NASA helps students DEVELOP research projects

When NASA is mentioned in everyday conversation, it is probably most often associated with landing on the moon, childhood fantasies of going to space camp or the discovery of unknown life on faraway planets.

But NASA does more than just study the rest of the solar system. Earth, it seems, is just as important to study, and NASA has a vast archive of data on Earth itself. NASA’s DEVELOP program helps college students and recent graduates, through paid internships offered year-round, conduct and run their own research projects using NASA-collected observational data about Earth.

UGA recently became a new collaborator in the DEVELOP program and, for the first time, 10 students from UGA spent the summer using NASA’s observational data to explore public health and environmental issues.

“It’s a great experience because it provides a paid internship and the students really take ownership of the projects,” said UGA graduate student and NASA DEVELOP coordinator Steve Padgett-Vasquez.

“Ultimately, one of the goals is to increase the number of people using NASA observation data,” he added. “NASA invests a lot of money and research on ways to monitor Earth.”

Padgett-Vasquez, who is earning his Ph.D. in integrative conservation and geography through UGA’s Center for Integrative Conservation, initially began the conversation with geography department faculty to get UGA set up as a node for the program. As a previous DEVELOP center lead at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Padgett-Vasquez knows firsthand what an excellent hands-on learning experience the program is for students. That experience, he said, was worth offering to UGA students.

Lauren Childs-Gleason, the national science lead for DEVELOP in the National Program Office at NASA’s Langley Research Center, is pleased to have UGA on board with the program.

“It’s very exciting to collaborate with the University of Georgia,” she said. “We share the common goal of cultivating and enabling the next generation to apply science to make informed decisions to improve the planet around us.”

UGA joined the DEVELOP family this summer, as students conducted four applied Earth science projects that highlight the use of NASA Earth observations to address real-world environmental concerns. At the end of the 10-week summer internship, NASA held a summer closeout event at NASA headquarters, which UGA students participated in.

These internships are a different kind of experience than most students garner in an internship position, Childs-Gleason said.

“DEVELOP participants take ownership of project proposals outlining basic application concepts and have 10 weeks to research core scientific challenges, engage partners and end-users, demonstrate prototypical solutions, and finalize and document their results and outcomes,” she said.

“The opportunity to take a project from A to Z in this high-pressure, results-driven environment builds strong networks and hones effective communication skills. Participants gain both technical experience in remote sensing and GIS, as well as enhance their personal skills like working with teammates from other disciplines and personality types.”

Many participants go on to work for NASA and its supporting contractors or in other federal, state or local government agencies based off connections and opportunities that stem from their project and time with DEVELOP, she added.

One UGA student, Caren Remillard, a graduate student in geography, was one of two people selected annually as the recipient of a scholarship from Science Systems and Applications Inc., a NASA contracting organization that does payroll for the DEVELOP program.

UGA students worked on the following projects:

Stopping Wetland Dieback: A Journey Through the Muck

UGA students used observational data to investigate Georgia’s salt marshes. Salt marshes, as one of the most ecologically and economically important ecosystems in the world, are also one of the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet. Preventing destruction of coastal wetlands, via close monitoring and research, was of utmost importance to the research. Learn more about the project and findings of the research here:

Brazil Ecological Forecasting: Keeping Bearded Monkeys Cracking Nuts

In order to save the habitat of the bearded capuchin monkeys, researchers must first understand what is endangering it. While researchers focus on studying the tool-use behavior of these marvelous monkeys, it is imperative to show the dangers to their ecosystem and how to avoid them. Video:

Fire Burning: Birmingham’s Lung Decay

The 2007 Okefenokee fires burned more than 600,000 acres of land, leaving lots of debris in the air for the people of Birmingham County to breathe. This study hoped to uncover the effects of this debris on people’s health and to provide timely warnings to the greater populace if anything of this nature were to occur again.

Invasion of the HWA: Can We Stop It?

The hemlock woolly adelgid, a non-native insect that feeds by sucking sap from hemlocks and spruces, is spreading throughout the Great Smoky Mountains. Researchers fear that this phenomenon will kill the hemlock trees in the park unless there’s an intervention. The National Park Service, UGA and the Marshall Space Flight Center are collaborating by using the NASA Earth observation and local air quality data to determine the hemlock woolly adelgid’s next deadly impact to the eastern hemlock. Video: