UW News

August 21, 2019

3 UW graduate students earn NASA fellowships, continue legacy of success

UW News

rainier vistaThree University of Washington graduate students are among this year’s recipients of a prestigious NASA fellowship that funds student research projects in the fields of Earth and planetary sciences and astrophysics.

This year’s UW awardees are from the College of the Environment and the College of Engineering, focused on topics that include ocean wave dynamics, the behavior of glaciers and how predator-prey interactions can influence wildfires. NASA awarded about 120 fellowships for this year’s Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology program, drawing from a pool of nearly 1,000 applicants.

With this year’s fellows, the UW continues its trend of consistently outcompeting other universities in its representation of fellows across all disciplines touched by NASA science, said Jessica Lundquist, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering who has advised five fellows from previous years. In 2015, seven UW graduate students won the fellowship, and according to records from 2007 forward, at least one UW student has earned the fellowship nearly every year.

“The University of Washington is unique in its success across all disciplines of NASA, its regular and continued performance across all years, and in what these students have gone on to do,” Lundquist said. “NASA fellows must have a unique combination of technical know-how as well as scientific understanding. This legacy highlights how UW has been at the forefront of the technology and data-science revolution.”

NASA graduate fellowships provide funding for three years. Fellows at the UW often go on to do research at NASA centers or become faculty members at major universities.

Several previous fellows have returned to the UW as research scientists and professors, including David Shean (civil and environmental engineering) and Van Kane (environmental and forest sciences). Shean and Kane are now serving as advisors for current NASA fellows at the UW.

“The NASA fellowship program provided the essential support, computing resources and training that I needed for my UW Ph.D. research,” Shean said. “I’m thrilled to see continued NASA support for top UW students under this program, and excited about my new role training the next generation of NASA researchers.”

Here are this year’s fellowship winners and information about what they will study:

Benjamin Barr, atmospheric sciences

photo of benjamin barr

Benjamin Barr

When ocean waves break in strong winds, they release showers of spray droplets into the air. These droplets transfer heat and moisture to the air, but the transfers are difficult to predict because the processes involved are complex. Barr will work with NASA to develop a model for predicting heat and moisture transfer to the atmosphere by spray, which will be incorporated into larger NASA models used to make predictions for weather and climate.

“The fellowship is a fantastic opportunity to work with NASA experts in many fields of study. It brings us into a broad community of researchers who will become our friends and colleagues during our career,” Barr said. “This exposure to researchers on the cutting edge of science is invaluable to young scientists who are developing their own research focuses.”

Shashank Bhushan, civil and environmental engineering

photo of Shashank Bhushan

Shashank Bhushan

The mountain ranges surrounding the Tibetan Plateau have the largest concentration of glaciers outside of the polar regions. Each year, water melting from these glaciers replenishes the major river systems in the area and provides freshwater to millions of people living downstream. The glacier melt also contributes to global sea level rise.

Understanding how these glaciers behave has important implications for regional freshwater supply and sea level changes, Bhushan said. During his fellowship, Bhushan will use high-resolution satellite imagery to calculate glacier mass balance and movement patterns along the Tibetan Plateau and the surrounding region.

“I am always awestruck by the utility satellites offer in studying landform processes at remote locations, like how I can observe glaciers in High Mountain Asia from a desk in Seattle,” Bhushan said. “I am looking forward to interpreting these observations and tying them with established laws of glacier physics. In the longer term, this project will provide a foundation for my intended career as a glaciologist specializing in remote sensing.”

Lauren Satterfield, environmental and forest sciences

photo of Lauren Satterfield

Lauren Satterfield

Large plant-eating mammals, such as deer and elk, can reduce the amount of flammable brush in the forest as the animals eat and trample plants. These activities can help reduce burnable fuels on a landscape, impacting where a wildfire starts and how it grows. But researchers still don’t know what effects the predators of deer and elk — including wolves and cougars — might have on this natural cycle.

Satterfield will combine NASA data on forest canopies with GPS collar data from both predators and their prey to understand the role these animals play in regulating the amount of fuel and severity of wildfire in areas across Washington and the Pacific Northwest.

“This NASA project will allow me to take my Ph.D. work, which focuses on understanding predator-predator and predator-prey interactions, and apply it in an exciting new direction with potentially widespread implications for how we manage for fire in the future,” Satterfield said. “Long-term, I seek to use ecology and predictive modeling to address issues of global climate change in ecosystems heavily influenced by people.”

The fellowship used to be called the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship and was renamed in 2019. More information on this year’s selection process is available here.