2014 Emerging Leaders

Miguel O. Román

Provided timely and reliable information on wildfires, storm damage and global energy consumption to help scientists and policymakers better understand and respond to natural disasters and climate change.

Each day, NASA satellites collect and transmit valuable data about environmental conditions on earth, including climate change and the impact of natural disasters. But this information is useless without astute scientists who analyze and interpret the images to improve the management of the world’s natural resources and develop emergency response plans.

Enter Miguel Román, a 32-year-old research scientist who is using the satellite data to learn about the impact of flooding, storms and forest fires, to better understand the effects of urban policies on global energy demand, and to measure the influence of warming climate on tundra, boreal forest, savanna, mangrove and wetland ecosystems.

“Miguel is at the forefront of what is happening to our planet,” said Nicholas White, former director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate at NASA’s Goddard Flight Center. “He’s an outstanding young scientist whose accomplishments focus on observing our planet and how it’s changing.”

Román’s team, which includes colleagues from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), recently demonstrated a 25 percent improvement in the detection of wildfires using thermal infrared imaging technology from a joint NASA-NOAA satellite. This is now enabling the U.S. and foreign governments to more effectively plan their response to wildfires, including positioning of equipment and personnel to fight the fires and being able to more quickly evacuate people who may be in danger.

Román also has used satellite imagery of nighttime lights in 500 cities across the U.S., Europe, China and the Middle East to characterize electricity usage. Accurate information about energy usage provides essential data needed to study climate change, and his work is helping to better analyze the magnitude of daily, weekly and seasonal energy demand.

In addition, Román has used nighttime imagery to more rapidly map the impact of storms on cities and portions of the power grid. Román demonstrated the effectiveness of his new approach during a series of violent “derecho” thunderstorms that left a more than 700-mile trail of destruction across the Midwest and mid-Atlantic in June 2012 when he and his team quickly produced maps of the areas that were without power.

“NASA puts satellites up to collect information about the changing environment that we live in. Miguel is really down in the trenches, taking the data and turning it into useful information that is leading to scientific understanding and societal benefit,” said Christopher Justice, chair of the geography department of the University of Maryland.

While Román is best known for his work at NASA, he also has made his mark in international circles as an elected officer of the Committee for Earth Observation Satellites, an international group of 55 civil space-based observation programs that exchange data for the benefit of humankind.

“Some people want to push back on the data that comes back at face value, but Miguel took on a huge effort to get a world network of scientists to formulate acceptance standards,” said Edward Masuoka, chief of NASA Goddard’s Terrestrial Informational Systems Laboratory.

“He understands how to work with a large team of people to get them to go out and achieve common objectives,” said Masuoka.

Román first arrived at NASA in 2003 as a Minority University Research and Education Program intern from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. In 2009, after graduating from Cornell University’s program in systems engineering and receiving his doctorate in geography from Boston University, he became a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Colleagues say he is passionate about working for the federal government, and that his greatest strength is his ability to communicate with everyone, not just fellow Ph.Ds.

“He’s able to really tailor his message and his research in a way that speaks to more than just the algorithm development community. He builds bridges, which is really critical if we’re going to develop the science to understand and mitigate climate change,” said Karen Seto, a professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies who is familiar with Román’s work.

Román, the first in his family to graduate from a U.S. college, said using his science background to serve the public interest is very rewarding.

“When you are exposed to federal careers and you see you can do so much more than just work on your own and for your own good, it just hooks you,” Román said. “Our job is to improve life on earth, whether we’re looking at hurricanes, fires or oil spills.”