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An accomplished Belizean Scientist Emil Cherrington: ‘It’s pretty inspiring to work for NASA’

Posted: Wednesday, April 20, 2022. 9:40 pm CST.

Photo Credit: NASA

By Rubén Morales Iglesias:

“It’s pretty inspiring to work for NASA,” said accomplished Belizean scientist Emil Cherrington at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

NASA Earth featured Cherrington in a social media post in which he recounts how he got to NASA and where he now works ie. NASA’s Applied Sciences Capacity Building Program as the West African Regional Science Coordination Lead for the NASA/USAID SERVIR program.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States government responsible for the space program, aeronautics, and space research.

Cherrington said he was captivated by science.

“As a kid growing up in Central America, I was fascinated by science and I was a voracious reader of science textbooks, science fiction, and comic books,” said Cherrington.

“Not having many real-life scientific role models, the exploits of the fictional Mentats and of Peter Parker helped pique my interest, eventually leading to the pursuit of degrees in science in the U.S. and Europe – places far from the land of my birth. In graduate school, I got my first exposure to NASA Landsat data, whose pixels seemed like puzzles that needed to be unraveled. This caused something to click, setting the foundation for Cherrington’s future.

Cherrington said that now that he is at NASA, he is still marvelled by science, but what’s more important is that he is proud of his Belizean roots.

“In addition to still being fascinated with and getting to work with Landsat data almost 20 years later, what gets me excited about coming into work each day is the science we do, and the connections we make through the program with users around the globe who are interested in using Earth observations to make better decisions about resource allocation. Having grown up in Belize – a country that benefited from the SERVIR program’s first hub – this work continues to resonate with me.

“It’s especially rewarding to hear from SERVIR’s users that the information that you have provided has made a difference to them, whether it has been through assistance with co-developing open science solutions or interpreting the outputs of climate models. It’s pretty inspiring to work for NASA.”

According to a 2020 NASA article, Cherrington credits his aunt Carolyn Leacock-Mahung who gave him a computer for nudging him towards what he is now doing.

“We all have that one person in our family who pushes you, and I think my aunt saw that I had a similar kind of curiosity as her,” Cherrington said.

“When I look back, if [I had not gotten that computer], I’m 100% certain I wouldn’t have ended up working in geographic information systems (GIS), doing remote sensing or even meeting my wife. All of these fortunate things happened because I had somebody who believed in me and encouraged me.”

According to NASA, his actual work with the SERVIR program, a joint development initiative between NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), gives local decision-makers in Asia, Africa and the Americas “the satellite-based tools, training and services they need to act on climate-sensitive issues like disasters, agriculture and food security, water management and land use”.

Cherrington who earned a Master’s degree in forest resources at the University of Washington in Seattle was working at the Coastal Zone Management Authority & Institute in Belize in 2005 when he got a phone call from Dan Irwin, research scientist at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Cherrington had been recommended to Irwin, who is also the global program manager for SERVIR, by a Ph.D. candidate doing research with SERVIR. Cherrington ended working with the very first SERVIR hub — SERVIR-Mesoamerica. He worked for eight years in Panama where he “helped lead trainings that put Earth observations and lessons learned from NASA into the hands of local decision-makers in Central America to help them address local challenges and try to make life better for their communities”.

“The SERVIR team wouldn’t be the same without Emil,” Irwin said in the NASA article.

“He’s been with us since the beginning, and his passion, expertise and enthusiasm for Earth observations and capacity building have helped both empower and strengthen the many communities he’s worked with all over the world.”

While working with SERVIR, Cherrington went back to school for his Ph.D. and earned a double doctorate in forest ecology from AgroParisTech in Paris, France and Technische Universität Dresden in Dresden, Germany.

“It’s a privilege to be able to work with a program like SERVIR and to be a part of the Applied Sciences Program,” Cherrington said.

“Given the unusual times that we’re living in, I think sometimes that’s what gives you that extra motivation to continue laboring on when you need it. For me, looking at the things that other people are doing or saying, that provides me with inspiration as well.”

And his work has also been directly related to Belize.

As recently as 2020, Cherrington was working on land cover mapping for a NASA-funded project called “Climate-influenced Nutrient Flows and Threats to the Biodiversity of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System”.

Before that, a land cover study that was led by Cherrington was used at the baseline for the Belize country report for the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Global Forest Resource Assessment 2020.

Cherrington, who ran the Belize Geo Twitter account, said social media is a great tool to bridge the gap between NASA data and users.

“I think when scientists communicate using social media or other means, they also help inspire or encourage younger folks who are also interested in science,” Cherrington said.


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