Collecting ground data on soil moisture and vegetation growth in Alaska's tundra. Credit: Erika Podest

Education

Colegio St. Mary
B.Sc. from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Prescott, Arizona)
M.Sc. and Ph.D. from University of Dundee (Scotland)

What first sparked your interest in space and science?

I grew up in Panama, a country with an exuberant nature. As a child, I often spent my weekends enjoying the outdoors, and from a young age I was intrigued by the beauty and perfection of nature and its function. This curiosity, appreciation and respect for nature has carried on in me and driven my desire to become a scientist focused on Earth science.

How did you end up working in the space program?

I started at JPL as an intern to do part of my thesis research. That opportunity led to other opportunities, which eventually got me hired as a scientist in the Earth Science Division.

Tell us about your job. What do you do?

I am a scientist in the Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems group at JPL. My research entails using satellite images to study Earth’s ecosystems specifically related to wetlands and boreal forests and how they are being affected by climate change.

Posing with an Anaconda in the Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Erika Podest
Posing with an Anaconda in the Peruvian Amazon. Credit: Erika Podest

What's one piece of advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?

Look for opportunities to follow your dreams. Be perseverant and patient, and always put forward your best effort.

Who inspires you?

My father inspires me. He taught me perseverance and humility and always encouraged me to follow my dreams. He also built the confidence in me to overcome life’s challenges. I also draw great inspiration from nature. I find it majestic, calming and humbling, and it motivates me to keep studying and help preserve it for future generations to enjoy.

What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?

One of my favorite projects was being part of a team to put a satellite in space, called the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP), to measure soil moisture globally. Seeing this satellite mission go from paper to reality was an amazing journey.

At a Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) campaign in Australia, posing in front of an aircraft that collected measurements in support of the calibration/validation activities. Credit: Erika Podest
At a Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) campaign in Australia, posing in front of an aircraft that collected measurements in support of the calibration/validation activities. Credit: Erika Podest

What are some fun facts about yourself?

I have many different interests. I like to explore the world from many different perspectives. I scuba dive, fly (I hold a private pilot’s license) and hike, and I love to windsurf. Also, I am a card trick enthusiast.

What is your favorite space image and why?

My favorite space image is the “Blue Marble.” It is an image of Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the Apollo 17 crew on its way to the Moon. This image became a symbol of the environmental movement, depicting Earth’s fragility and vulnerability in the vastness of space.

full-disc view of earth with continents and clouds visible
One of the most widely known photographs of Earth, this image was taken by the crew of the final Apollo mission as the crew made its way to the Moon. Dubbed the “Blue Marble,” Earth is revealed as both a vast planet home to billions of creatures and a beautiful orb capable of fitting into the pocket of the universe. Image credit: NASA