Ethiopian Ph.D. student wins a NASA Fellowship award

By Patrick Bowden  | The Collegian

Woubet Alemu This year, two determined SDSU Ph.D. students Woubet Alemu and Christopher Moran won the international NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship award.

This award grants the students each a $30,000 sum to help further their aspiring research plans for the future. The grant also allows the students to utilize NASA’s research recourses that are typically unavailable to the public such as satellites, telescopes and planes.

Moran is out west studying fuel treatments that deal with forest fires. Alemu, is well on his way to organizing multiple data collection systems for agriculture production in East Africa. Winning these fellowships has opened many new doors for the students in terms of completing their Ph.D.’s, and help them to be a part of solving larger, worldwide problems.

“Woubet and I met in 2009 when we first went to Ethiopia (Woubet’s home country) for a project under the National Institutes of Health,” said Alemu’s Ph.D. advisor Dr. Geoffrey Henebry. “Since 2011, I have advised him by checking research progress alongside him as his graduate research assistant.”

Alemu’s research deals indirectly with the future prediction of grain production in Ethiopia, South Sudan and Tanzania. The extremities of these countries climate variables, along with their “very incomplete infrastructure,” make crop production nearly unpredictable and difficult to maintain.

Alemu uses passive microwave data from special sensors (2003-2011) onboard NASA’s Aqua satellite to measure air temperature, surface moisture, and vegetation optical depth through clouds at night.

While these specific data points are not commonly used, they are important variables for exactly what Alemu plans to do with his research.

“For the first year [of research] we do crop vegetation modeming for land surface phenology. For the second year, we will use this data to predict crop productivity in these countries,” Alemu said. “We will use this type of data for the research as a whole in the future.”

If Alemu’s research goes the way he plans it to, this process will gradually narrow down exactly how to effectively increase the grain production in East Africa.

On the opposite, more familiar side of the globe, Moran is spending part of his fall semester

toward the west coast dealing with controlling wildfires in terms of their fuel content. His research is much more close to home, and adds a realistic realization to how important the impact of these Ph.D. students work can be.

“A common misconception as the last century of effective wildfire prevention has led to even larger and more intense wildfires in the last decade by allowing many forests and shrub lands to become overly dense,” Moran said. “My research looks at what types of fuel [vegetation] treatments work where and under what kind of weather conditions are they effective.”

Moran sees the public land as a national treasure for its citizens, and therefor made him interested in disturbance ecology research.

“To use a somewhat pertinent sports analogy about my research, the best offense is a good defense. Nearly all of our ecosystems have evolved to be tolerant of some type of fire regime,” Moran said. “By allowing more fire on the landscape under the right conditions, the ‘mega-wildfires’ can be subdued where they previously have not been burning. And by correcting our mistakes, we can increase our forests’ resilience to a number of disturbances.”

The process of winning one of the NASA fellowships began with the proposal of their research, in order to be judged on their merits. For Alemu, Environment Research Letters accepted the submission of a paper, “Land surface phenologies and seasonalities using cool earthlight in mid-latitude croplands”, for publication. Moran went through a similar process, and was admitted for placement into the competition.

Remarkably, this is far from the first time SDSU has produced undergraduate alumni who have received the award. In fact, this is the schools second time having two winners in the same year of the same award.

“It is worth noting SDSU has consistently been successful winning these fellowships and has outpaced many Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale since the departments inception,” Moran said.

“We have an outstanding record for getting these fellowships, which points to the excellence of the program and that students are ready send proposals,” Dr. Henebry said on behalf of the department’s recent history.

As Alemu plans to return to his home country of Ethiopia after his research project, Moran hopes to continue research and one day directly for a land management agency.

“I would like to like to continue having a presence in fire management helping to facilitate the application of scientific principals developed to improve public lands,” Moran said.

(The Collegian is the independent student newspaper at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D. )