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Two WVU grad students working in NASA program to study climate change

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Two West Virginia University students received highly coveted graduate research assistantships studying climate change with scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Climate Change Research Initiative (CCRI) program. 

CCRI is a year-long STEM engagement and Experiential Learning Opportunity for educators and graduate students to work directly with NASA scientists and lead research teams in a NASA research project hosted at either the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, New York, or the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. 

Stacia Harper, a non-traditional graduate student at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, and Gabriela Himmele, a graduate student at the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, will be part of the Climate Change Research Initiative Program, a year-long science, technology, engineering and math engagement and experiential learning opportunity for educators and graduate students. They’ll work directly with NASA scientists and lead research teams on a NASA research project.  

NASA Education Officer Matthew Pearce leads the Climate Change Research Initiative program and matches students with the research project that best aligns with what they study.  

“The research that comes out of this program is critical to the agency and its work,” Pearce said. “These elements they’re studying and creating new knowledge for is critical to our understanding of climate change and climate impacts.” 

Pursuing her doctorate in natural resource management, Harper’s project with the NASA program is focused on connecting the local urban fabric to changes in temperature, population and climate. Her NASA mentor is Dr. Eric Brown De Colstoun, a physical scientist in the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA. 

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“We can’t escape climate change,” Harper said. “Going forward, it’s really important to understand the linkages between places and populations that contribute to changes in temperature. We need to better understand how these temperature changes are spread across the landscape to identify those areas and populations that are at greatest risk. It’s a climate equity issue.” 

She is working on one of six projects through the NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Goddard Space Flight Center. 

"Working with NASA on this project helps with my own dissertation because the topics are identical,” Harper said. “It’s adding a lot more in terms of the data, the expertise and the mentorship than I could ever get without this opportunity.” 

Other current research focus areas include documenting environmental change beyond five decades, volcanic emission impacts on climate and agriculture, characterizing urban land surface temperature, monitoring lakes from space and climate change in the Hudson Estuary. 

Getting her doctorate in the department of physics and astronomy, Himmele is working on NASA’s SnowEx mission, a project based at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Himmele’s mentor is Dr. Alicia Joseph, a physical scientist at NASA Goddard’s Hydrological Sciences Laboratory.  

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“I’ll be working with the SnowEx team to investigate how we can use different remote sensing and machine learning technologies to examine how snow is changing with climate change,” she said. “Moving forward, it is incredibly important to have a better understanding of the impacts of these changes on things like agriculture and the Earth’s energy budget. This is especially true because so many people are dependent on snow globally. It is an integral part of our climate system that affects most other atmospheric and climate processes.” 

With each research project, lesson plans are created to teach grade-school and high school students about climate change as it’s discovered. 

Educators participate in each research project to create curriculum that integrates components of the project directly into their classroom instruction while providing community STEM engagement events to the students, schools and communities. 

Empowering “STEM-identity” is a key aspect of the program for all participants, Pearce added. Success for him is inspiring the next generation of explorers. He hopes to engage all learners to contribute to NASA’s work in exploration and discovery while creating opportunities for the future STEM workforce. 

“Cultivating a series of positive STEM experiences and high quality mentorship opportunities for all learners is critical to inspiring students to pursue STEM careers,’” he said. “Getting people to see themselves in those professions is STEM-identity. I think this program does that for all the participants.” 

Both Harper and Himmele hope that their time as Climate Change Research Initiative research assistants influences the course of their futures. Harper hopes to have direct involvement with climate policy negotiations. And, Himmele plans to work for NASA because of the fascinating science and programming involved in the research, as well as the real-world applications it has and the people depending on it.  

Pearce is hopeful that they, as well as the other graduate research assistants, apply to work at NASA. 

“I want them to publish their work, present at conferences, but mostly, I hope they stay engaged and contribute to solutions to mitigate climate change,” Pearce said.   

Both graduate students started with NASA in October and will work on their respective projects until Aug. 2023.  

The Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design envisions a world sustainably fed, clothed and sheltered. To learn more about the Davis College, visit Keep up with the latest updates and news on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by following @WVUDavis. 



CONTACT: Leah Smith    
Public Relations Specialist  
Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design    


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