South Africa and beyond

6 Jul 22 | Profiles

She was born and raised in Johannesburg, but now she keeps an eye on earth’s heartbeat from the “centre of the universe.” Dr Kerry Cawse-Nicholson is a leading scientist at NASA and Saffa Mag’s Izak du Plessis learned more about her remarkable work.

South African scientist Kerry Cawse-Nicholson works as assistant manager for the Earth Science Section at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). She is the science lead for a mission called ECOSTRESS, which is a thermal radiometer mounted on the International Space Station.

It uses small temperature changes to monitor global plant stress, especially during heatwaves and drought. Kerry did her PhD in applied maths at Wits, and her particular application was image processing, studying imagery from aircraft and satellites to turn images into information.

“In particular, there is a lot of energy reflected or emitted at wavelengths we can’t see, and that energy can tell us about plant stress in a drought, changes in biodiversity, the impact of wildfire on vegetation and habitats, how heatwaves affect big cities, and much more,” says Kerry.

Kerry says it’s really about realizing the value of our resources. Growing up in South Africa where electricity and water, and other necessities, aren’t always guaranteed, made her realize that.

“Understanding that our resources are really finite and that we need to protect them has always been very important to me. Being involved in climate studies makes me feel like I’m doing something to actually make a difference.”

According to her, NASA is known for studying outer space and the planets in our solar system, but Earth is a planet too, and our home, and so NASA devotes a lot of its resources to studying the Earth.

“When I saw a job advert looking for an Earth scientist at JPL, with experience in image processing across multiple wavelengths, I thought, “Hey, that sounds perfect! But I’d never get a job like that!”

My husband encouraged me to apply anyway, and here I am! I moved from Johannesburg to California to join JPL as a scientist in 2016.” Kerry is also involved in upcoming missions that will be part of the NASA Earth System Observatory.

“It’s fascinating being involved in this stage of mission development. We’re working with a large group of scientists and engineers to develop a satellite that will monitor a wide range of processes on the surface of the earth, including snow melt, volcanic eruptions, water quality, biodiversity, soils, agriculture, and more,” she says.

She lives with her husband Terence and daughter Maia (9) on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Kerry met Terence at high school in Johannesburg and they were married on the significant date 10/10/10 (10 October, 2010). He gave up his position as a financial manager in South Africa to move across the world with her, and is her biggest supporter.

“My daughter, Maia, is 9. She’s sweet and kind and loves to read, and she desperately misses her grandparents in SA, even though we’ve lived here for most of her life,” says Kerry.

Kerry says it was certainly difficult to adapt at first, but they’ve made some wonderful friends, and that makes a world of difference. “We are part of a big expat community, in part because NASA attracts so many international scientists.”

Away from work, Kerry spends a lot of time with Terence and Maia, hiking, camping, playing board games and reading together.

“I also enjoy singing, playing the piano and baking. All our friends love my melktert!” says Kerry.

Most of Kerry’s family is still in South Africa. She says she is very close to her parents and brother. Maia is especially close to her grandparents. “They used to visit often, but because of COVID, we haven’t seen them in more than two years! I haven’t even met my two-year-old niece yet! We’re looking forward to a long visit in August,” says Kerry.

Kerry misses her family. Beyond her immediate family, she is also close to her many cousins and aunts and uncles in SA. Terence, who is also close to his family, was diagnosed with colon cancer last year, which is making the distance between them and the family in South Africa even harder to negotiate.

Kerry says she continually works to be the best mom, wife, and scientist she can be. “I’m always learning new things and meeting brilliant people. My main goal is simply to continue studying our Earth, in the hopes that we can repair the damage we have done to our home and learn to thrive on a changing planet.”

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