|By Brandi Bernoskie,
Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
Marc Imhoff did not expect to find himself in a tiger preserve setting up instruments when he first started working for NASA. From an early age, Imhoff knew he would pursue a career in science. He often watched television shows about new scientific discoveries and their effects on people’s lives. Science was important and scientists were respected for their contributions to society. Imhoff wanted to be part of that.
“I really wanted to do something that benefitted humanity,” Imhoff says. Part of his inspiration came from his father, who had been in China during World War II. His father told him stories about the starvation he saw there. Originally, Imhoff was interested in biology and agriculture, planning to work on the world hunger problem. In college, he studied Physical Geography then went on to receive a Masters degree in Agronomy and a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences. During this time, he started working on global crop monitoring from space and ended up working at NASA.
Now, as the project scientist for NASA’s Terra satellite mission, Imhoff actually travels to the sites where the science supported by Terra is being done. It was his earlier work on flood mapping that took him into the jungles of India and Bangladesh. The instruments he set up in the preserve were part of a radar imaging experiment being done by the astronauts on the space shuttle. “We discovered how to map floods right through clouds and even under trees,” Imhoff remarks. The experiment’s results were used for flood mapping and for targeting mosquito breeding habitats, information which helps malaria and other disease control programs.
Terra is a large Earth science satellite with five instruments on board. Each instrument measures various features of the Earth’s surface ranging from ocean sea surface and land surface temperature to clouds and their role in Earth’s energy budget, as well as the amount and type of pollution in the atmosphere. With such a large mission Terra scientists study a wide variety of issues, from tracking fisheries in the ocean to wildfires on land. Imhoff travels often, not only to meet with scientists worldwide but also to visit sites where the science is being done. The scientists working in the field perform valuable work helping to calibrate the satellite data to make it better.
Imhoff’s own work currently focuses on urban heat islands. He uses satellite data like the city-lights at night images to locate urban areas. He then uses other satellite data on surface temperature and vegetation to examine how different development styles and roof materials combine to create hotter or cooler cities. Imhoff hopes his research will help us determine new ways to mitigate the effects of climate change and provide insight on how we might better manage our environment.
Because the Earth system is so complex, studying our environment and planet requires teams made up of diverse individuals. There are many ways to be part of projects that make a difference, from working on world hunger to mapping floods. “Follow your heart and your interests,” Imhoff encourages students, “and work on what excites you.”
Note: In August, Imhoff retired from his work at NASA and moved on to academia.