Román uses satellite data to detect wildfires, monitor effects of climate change

Tuesday - 5/20/2014, 2:34pm EDT

Listen to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp's interview with 2014 Sammies Finalist Miguel O. Román, Research Physical Scientist, Terrestrial Information Systems Laboratory, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. (Photo by Sam Kittner/Kittner.com)

Download

When most people think about NASA, images of spaceships, moon walks and exploration outward from the Earth come to mind. But the work of research physical scientist Miguel O. Román and his team at NASA's Terrestrial Information Systems Laboratory is focused in the other direction, on the environmental changes going on all around us.

Román uses satellite data to study the impact of flooding, storms and forest fires to assess the impact of urban policies and global energy demand. He takes this data and sees how the warming climate affects ecosystems across the planet.

"Miguel is at the forefront of what is happening to our planet," said Nicholas White, former director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate at NASA's Goddard Flight Center. "He's an outstanding young scientist whose accomplishments focus on observing our planet and how it's changing."

Through the use of thermal infrared imaging technology on NASA spacecraft, Román and his team improved the detection of wildfires by 25 percent.

"NASA puts satellites up to collect information about the changing environment that we live in. Miguel is really down in the trenches, taking the data and turning it into useful information that is leading to scientific understanding and societal benefit," said Christopher Justice, chair of the geography department of the University of Maryland.

For his work using NASA technology to improve the detection of wildfires and provide information about storm damage and global energy consumption, the Partnership for Public Service recently named Román as one of the finalists for the 2014 Call to Service Medal. The award recognizes federal employees for professional achievements that demonstrate important contributions being made by a new generation coming into public service.

Getting to know Miguel O. Román

Federal News Radio asked each of the Sammies finalists five questions about themselves. Here are Román's responses:

What three words best describe your leadership philosophy?
Think Big Picture.

What's the best piece of advice (or words of wisdom) you've ever received and who gave it to you?
Dr. James Smith (IEEE Fellow, who helped pioneer the remote sensing of Earth's biosphere) once told me: "New friends are like silver, but old ones are worth their weight in gold." The best way to build a better government is by playing the long game; and this not only requires smart politics, but also very strong teams that are loyal to the discipline and to each other.

Who is your greatest role model and why?
Dr. Gerald (Jerry) Soffen (1926-2000): I don't know many people who have had such an incredible impact on the lives of young space scientists and engineers as Jerry did. He was a brilliant researcher — having served in both NASA's Viking program (the first successful missions to perform unmanned experiments on Mars) as well as NASA's Earth Observing System (the centerpiece of our nations' Earth Science program). But what made Jerry really special was his lifelong passion for sharing his extraordinary knowledge with young people.

What's the last thing you read and what's next on your reading list?
I am currently reading "Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job." This is required reading for anyone focused on leadership development training. Bill Nordhaus' latest book "The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World" is next in my queue.

What would be the title of your autobiography and why?
"El Mirador de la Tierra" (translation - The Earth's Observer). The first edition will definitely be in Spanish. It's my native tongue and, I would argue, inherently more descriptive for expressing concepts like nature, the environment and climate change.

The Call to Service Medal is just one of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) presented annually by the Partnership for Public Service. View a photo gallery of all the Sammies nominees.