CSU-led NASA DEVELOP team takes top prize in national competition

NASA DEVELOP, part of NASA’s Applied Sciences Program, runs a fast-paced competition three times each year that gives research teams 10 weeks to use NASA earth observations to address a community concern. Teams must produce scientific results in this short timeframe, interact online with other researchers who comment on the findings, create a video, respond to judges across the miles and explain their science in an effective manner.

Not a big deal, right?

Members of the CSU-based NASA DEVELOP team winter 2015
NASA DEVELOP team members Stephanie Krail, Oliver Miltenberger, Chandra Fowler and Darin Schulte

A Fort Collins-based team at Colorado State University learned on Jan. 9 that it won the virtual poster session for the NASA program, beating 25 other projects involving 100 researchers at 12 other locations across the country. The team’s project focused on analyzing cheatgrass cover across the area burned by the Arapaho Fire in south central Wyoming.

Invasive plant species a problem in the West

Cheatgrass is an invasive plant species that is non-native, said Amanda West, a postdoctoral researcher with CSU’s Natural Resource Ecology Lab and one of the team’s advisors.

Cheatgrass crowds out native grass species that are an important food source for mule deer and elk. It also can burn every year, compared with other grasses that burn less frequently, changing the fire cycle.

A New York Times story that ran in October 2015 described cheatgrass as a “Western scourge.”

DEVELOP partners help guide projects

The CSU team partners with the United States Geological Survey and is one of three programs—out of a total of 13—that is affiliated with a university. It was also the first university-based DEVELOP location to partner with a federal agency, West said.

Led by Darin Schulte, graduate student at the University of Denver, the team analyzed satellite images, building on previous cheatgrass research spearheaded by West.

“It wasn’t feasible to survey the locations by hand, which is part of the reason for using the remote sensing data as an approach to monitor where the cheatgrass is,” Schulte said.

Findings from the team’s research will help the Wyoming State Forestry Division decide how much herbicide they will need to purchase, and where to apply it, to destroy the invasive plant species. The team’s partners — and anyone, really — can also use the CSU team’s maps in grant proposals, to help secure funding for cheatgrass management.

Red cheatgrass in the Medicine Bow National Forest
Red cheatgrass in the Medicine Bow National Forest

“That’s something that we all recognize when we start to work with land management agencies, the importance of resources and the ability to do things they’d like to do to manage lands,” West said.

Previous partners with the NASA DEVELOP program include the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Colorado State Forest Service. The team has even gone international, and has worked with scientists in places including Ethiopia.

NASA projects keep DEVELOP teams busy

The DEVELOP program in Fort Collins was launched in 2012, and has between 24 and 30 participants each year, according to Brian Woodward, CSU graduate student and lead organizer of the program.

Community college, college and graduate students, as well as recent graduates and transitioning career professionals are eligible to apply to the program. Previous participants with the Fort Collins program have included students from California, Hawaii, New York and Pennsylvania.

Applications for the summer term will be accepted until Feb. 12. DEVELOP participants are hired as contractors, through the DEVELOP National Program Office, with the pay rate set depending on the level of education.

Schulte said he plans to continue working with the Fort Collins team while finishing up his graduate studies.

How big of a celebration did the team have when they learned that they won? Given the “virtual” aspect to the competition, Schulte said the party was somewhat subdued. “Everybody smiled depending on where they were,” he said. “People were pretty dispersed.”

CSU Research Scientist Paul Evangelista is the director and science advisor for NASA DEVELOP at CSU.

Each member of the winning team will receive a one-year trial version of ArcGIS software, furnished by competition sponsor Esri.

The National Resource Ecology Laboratory is part of the Warner College of Natural Resources.