Dr. Erika Podest is one of life's unheralded treasures, the kind of person whose résumé suggests that the rest of us are wasting our lives.
Podest is an earth scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. She started at JPL as a graduate student studying global ecosystems. “It was supposed to be an eight-month-long visit,” she says. “That was over 10 years ago.”
The daughter of a Panamanian mother and an Austrian father, Podest developed an early love of nature and science while growing up in Panama. “My father was a watchmaker. His grandfather had this vision that we would never be living without time. So he sent my father and my aunt to study watchmaking.”
Some of it clearly rubbed off. Growing up, “I really was attracted to technology, and to its application for the benefit of mankind,” she says. As an electrical engineering student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, this overachiever decided she needed to learn to fly a plane. She did, and says it gave her a new perspective on the planet and guided her career choices.
As a master's student, she examined deforestation in tropical rainforests. For her Ph.D., she focused on the northern high latitudes, where the landscape absorbs the most carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during the growing season.
At JPL, she uses satellite images to understand the Earth's response to climate change. She uses “remote sensing,” a term she's not fond of because “it can come across as ESP.”
There's nothing unscientific about remote sensing, though there are different ways of recording data.
Podest uses RADAR, short for “radio detection and ranging.” It's a form of remote sensing that she describes as similar to ultrasound.
She also has been working to put a new satellite in Earth's orbit in 2014. The Soil Moisture Active/Passive (SMAP) Mission is designed to better understand soil moisture on the Earth's surface, which can help with weather prediction and lead to more efficient management of water resources.
In her spare time, Podest is a foreign-film buff who dances merengue, windsurfs and plays the piano. “I try to practice as often as I can,” she says. “It really helps you focus when you're playing. That's why I love windsurfing, too. It's the only thing on your mind when you're doing it.”
But it's the study of Earth that's Podest's real passion.
“Everyone thinks JPL is just about the other planets,” she says. “But there is a very large focus on the observation and study of Earth through satellite imagery. After all, I think our planet is the most important one to study.”