Suggested Searches

5 min read

Surf, Turf, Above Earth: Students Participate in NASA Field Research

Flying over and tromping through watery landscapes along the East Coast, working alongside NASA scientists, and recording measurements about the air that they’re flying through – these are not the usual experiences for an undergraduate student. For the 2023 participants in NASA’s SARP East program, it was part of a summer they won't forget.

Flying over and tromping through watery landscapes along the East Coast, working alongside NASA scientists, and recording measurements about the air that they’re travelling through – these are not the usual experiences for an undergraduate student. For the 2023 participants in NASA’s SARP East program – short for Student Airborne Research Program – it was part of a summer they won’t forget.

In June and July, 22 undergraduate students from universities across the United States convened in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia for an eight-week immersive research experience. Now in its 15th year – but for the first time on the East Coast – SARP gives participants the opportunity to conduct hands-on NASA research in different areas of Earth science and prepare research pitches and presentations. Undergraduates networked with and learned from both graduate student mentors and working scientists in the fields they are researching.

Interns with the 2023 NASA Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) found their place in aerospace over a summer spent doing research in the air and on land alongside NASA scientists.
Credits: NASA Langley Research Center

“It’s about expanding the NASA tent, exposing students to how NASA does Earth science, and involving them in research in these interdisciplinary topics that they wouldn’t otherwise get to see,” said Bob Swap, SARP East program director and associate division director for mission planning at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Though all the students are studying a topic within a STEM field, they come from a wide range of majors that bring unique perspectives to the research. Those varied backgrounds enhance the experience, bringing in knowledge from fields that aren’t explicitly related to Earth science.

“SARP has a lot of well-established and strong philosophies on equity and inclusivity,” said Susanne Craig, senior scientist in the ocean ecology lab at NASA Goddard. “The best science is done by a diverse group of people with lots of diverse lived experiences and different lenses to see questions through.”

A student in a headset on looks out a window of a plane. The rim of another window cuts down the middle of the image separating the interior and exterior of the plane. The engine and propellors are visible through the window.
NASA SARP intern Dorothy Sue Grimmer gazes out of the window of the B200 airplane she rides in alongside fellow interns and NASA scientists on an airborne research flight above Hampton Roads on June 14, 2023. u003cstrongu003eCredits: NASA/Angelique Herringu003c/strongu003e

Students of SARP

In their first year working on the East Coast, SARP organizers wanted to take advantage of the different aspects of Earth science that come together around the Chesapeake Bay region. Students were separated into groups to study the science of what the program dubbed “surf, turf, and above Earth.”

“The coordination of the SARP-East program gave us an unprecedented opportunity to assess the York and James rivers’ watersheds in a holistic way,” said John Bolten, chief of the hydrological sciences laboratory at Goddard and one of the program advisers. “The research incorporated observations of land surface hydrology, air quality, and water quality for a true Earth system science look at this vital watershed – and in a way that only NASA can do it.”

A group of students and advisors walk along a concrete path, a cloudy blue sky and green trees in the background. An advisor, centered in the image, is holding a very large, white, spherical balloon above her head.
NASA SARP intern Karla Lemus, on left, assists NASA Scientist Emeritus Anne Thompson as she leads NASA SARP East interns, to release an ozone sonde from the parking lot of the VCU Rice Rivers Center on June 16, 2023.

For instance, students boarded three planes dubbed “Sniffer,” “Pinger,” and “Looker” to investigate the environment of the Chesapeake Bay from above. The NASA research planes were equipped with instruments to measure aerosols, greenhouse gases, and soil moisture. On the planes, the students monitored the instruments and data, while taking in the views around them.

Sonja Moons has been studying quantum dots and spectroscopy as part of her chemistry and physics degree at Vanderbilt University. But as a member of the Salt Water Intrusion and Sea Level Rise team for SARP East, she had a chance to learn something novel. Her team looked at how sea level rise, storm surge flooding, and the proximity to hazardous chemical facilities could affect socioeconomically vulnerable people.

“We’ve spent a lot of time gaining a broader understanding of science that’s possible at NASA,” Moons said. “It has given me insight into the different paths I could go with my career and insight on things that I wouldn’t have considered and now know exist.”

Four people stand in a corn field. They're wearing matching blue t-shirts, with the NASA logo on the front and a SARP mission logo on the back. Th
From left to right, graduate mentor Victoria Jenkins, NASA SARP East intern Alea Strasser, faculty mentor Domonick Ciruzzi and NASA SARP intern Nina Botvin review a LiDar scan of the VCU Rice Rivers Center cornfields on June 16, 2023.

Nathan Tesfayi, who studies environmental science and Spanish at the University of Georgia, did his SARP field work aboard a small research boat in the Chesapeake Bay. Nathan and his “Surf” teammates (self-named the “Students Undertaking Research in Freshwater”) took measurements of wind speed and direction and air temperature while faculty members were calibrating instruments. The Surf team also completed measurements with a Secchi Disk – an instrument that has been used for hundreds of years to measure water quality – and made water color measurements from an app on their phones.

“I’ve never been in a research vessel before, so the experience felt very immersive and collaborative,” Tesfayi said. “You really get the full experience. First, you’re looking down at the landscape that you’re flying over, and then next you’re actually in it and experiencing it.”

In addition to the field work, the students visited NASA Goddard to tour the facilities and talk with scientists in the Earth sciences division. Students also worked closely with and visited NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. SARP East is a collaboration between several interagency and university partners.

“We need a variety of perspectives and diversity of thought to be able to tackle the challenges facing the Earth and to ensure humanity’s ability to continue to thrive on our home planet,” said Joel Scott, program executive for Earth Science Data Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It comes down to inspiring and empowering the next generation of scientists.”

By Erica McNamee
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.