Grad interview: How to become a NASA scientist.

This issue’s grad interview is with NASA Earth and Space Science fellow Bailey Morrison. In this photo she is using a pH meter to create acid water for a climate change/ocean acidification project as part of the Bodega Marine Lab.


Grad Interviews provides an inside scoop to different environmental graduate programs at the University of Illinois. If you are interested in pursuing a graduate degree in science or just have a general interest in grad-programs you may not otherwise be acquainted with, read below! This issues Grad interview: a grad student in the Nasa Earth and Space Science fellowship!  


How did you become a NASA fellow?


I graduated with a B.S. in environmental science and management from the University of California, Davis (UCD) in 2012, with a focus on GIS and Remote Sensing Sciences. As an undergrad, I had the opportunity to work (and intern) in multiple labs studying a diverse set of ecosystems, and working on the NASA HyspIRI vegetation satellite mission for the Center for Spatial Technology and Remote Sensing (CSTARS). The NASA HyspIRI mission triggered my interests in environmental remote sensing and lead me to apply to the Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology (PEEC) at UIUC in Dr. Jonathan Greenberg’s Global Environmental Analysis and Remote Sensing (GEARS) lab. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Dr. Greenberg received his PhD from UCD under his advisor, Dr. Susan Ustin (my boss!!!), which has led to me being referred to as the “Grandbaby” of the CSTARS lab. In 2015, during my first year as a grad student, I applied and was lucky enough to be awarded the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship for my proposal entitled, “The velocity of tree cover in California.”


Tell us more about yourself and your research.


Living most of my life in California, I grew up loving extreme sports, especially surfing, snowboarding and wakeboarding (my absolute favorite). I also love hiking (on mountains/coastlines), especially because it re-energizes my love for biology. Unfortunately, in Illinois, I don’t have the luxury of participating in these activities, so I’ve had to find some new hobbies. In my spare time I’ve turned to my childhood hobbies: music and art. Specifically, I enjoy playing guitar and painting.


My research generally considers how climate change effects plants at large extents and fine resolutions. As climate changes, we are experiencing climates that did not exist in the past (novel climates), and climates that existed during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) but not today (disappeared climates). The occurrence of novel and disappeared climates leads to novel species distributions and ecosystems. I’ve studied where novel and disappeared climates were/are located in Alaska from the LGM to today, and how fast white spruce and green alder populations were required to move to keep pace with interglacial climate change. Similarly, I am using satellite imagery to determine how fast California’s forests and woodlands will be required to move to keep pace with future climate change. Lastly, I am using satellite imagery to determine tree mortality in California from 1985 to today, combined with my modeled climate data, to find a climate signal that would allow scientists to determine when a drought will arise prior to its occurrence.


How will your research benefit ecosystem health/biodiversity/the world? 


My research helps ecosystem health, biodiversity, and the world in many ways. For instance, land managers of endangered species/ecosystems often focus on restoring/conserving land in areas where species occur today. Climate change is likely to rearrange the distribution of species/ecosystems in the future, which makes it important to know where a species/ecosystem will be located in 50+ years, so that land can instead be conserved today. Likewise, it is important to know how fast and in what direction these species/ecosystems will move in order to conserve natural corridors and prevent migration barriers of the future.


Any tips for students that want become cool NASA scientists?


There are a few important steps to become a NASA scientist:


First and foremost, you must be interested in work that NASA performs. You may be thinking: “How does an ecologist win a fellowship from NASA? They don’t study outer space!” NASA is composed of four divisions: Heliophysics, Astrophysics, Planetary Physics, and Earth Systems. If your work/interests fall into one of these categories, then there is a possibility that  you can become a cool NASA scientist! All that was required was a good idea and the use of a NASA product, in my case, satellite imagery.
Second, believe that you are good enough to become a NASA scientist. It is easy to feel intimidated as a student and young researcher and to doubt your knowledge/self-worth as a scientist. I never in a million years believed that I would be awarded a NASA fellowship, but it happened, and it never would have happened if I didn’t try and apply for the award.

One thought on “Grad interview: How to become a NASA scientist.

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