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She Monitored Rainforest Destruction as NASA Intern

Sept. 26, 2012

This past summer, biological science major Cheryl Sevilla got a firsthand lesson about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest as a NASA DEVELOP National Program intern. The research she conducted may help save what's left of the forest.

Sevilla spent the summer at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., where she monitored deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest using satellite data.

"We're quite proud of Cheryl and her accomplishments. She is an example of what we're trying to do as faculty — to encourage our students to take advantage of external opportunities because it is a value-added component to their education," said Darren R. Sandquist, professor of biological science and Sevilla's faculty mentor in CSUF's Southern California Ecosystems Research Program. "It's quite an honor to be accepted into a program like this, which is highly regarded nationally."

Sevilla examined changes in vegetation cover between 2005 and 2011 in western Brazil, which allowed her to estimate how much forest was destroyed over those six years.

Deforestation occurs primarily as a result of agricultural production and has adverse effects, such as biodiversity loss and increased carbon dioxide emissions, said Sevilla, whose interests are in biodiversity, ecology and conservation biology.

While deforestation rates are at a record low in the Brazilian Amazon, according to recent reports, "what those reports fail to recognize, however, is that many states of
Brazil have been so severely deforested that the decrease in deforestation rates is inevitable," she explained.

"You can't destroy what is already gone. In our study area, we found that about 8 percent of the pristine forest was destroyed between 2005 and 2011. This may not seem like a large number, but considering the fact that most of the intact rainforest in Rondônia is currently protected, it is surprising that 8 percent was still destroyed."

During her internship, Sevilla gained experience in remote sensing — the field of acquiring data remotely by using satellites.

"The interesting thing about this project is that it was all done from an office in Virginia using free satellite data that is available to the public. There is a massive amount of free satellite data out there, but unfortunately not many people outside of the scientific community know about it or how they can benefit from it," she said.

The DEVELOP National Program is working to bridge the gap between scientists and society by showcasing the capabilities of NASA satellites and working directly with the organizations that can benefit from the information they provide, Sevilla explained.

"Our project helped to bridge this gap by not only using free data, but also by using free software to process our data. The software that is usually used to process data from satellites can be quite expensive, and small local communities and organizations in Brazil might not have the resources to purchase it. This is why we processed most of our data in open source software and created tutorials that explain the steps we used. Now anyone, not just scientists, can duplicate our methodology for free," she added.

After she graduates next May, Sevilla hopes her internship experience will help her land a job at a government agency, such as NASA or the U.S. Geological Survey.

"The summer program was an amazing opportunity for me to get some experience in the field of remote sensing, as well as make sure I am headed down the correct career path. I got to network and team build with NASA scientists and other students and experts from all over the country. It was an incredible experience."

Sandquist noted that as a result of Sevilla's internship, "she built skills that she would not have the opportunity to do at Cal State Fullerton. This makes her a better candidate for graduate programs and gives her a competitive edge for a job."

Desert Undergrad Research

For three years, Sevilla, a Fullerton resident, has conducted research on the reflectance spectrum of light as an indicator of water stress in leaves of desert plants, as part of her training in the Southern California Ecosystems Research Program, an undergraduate research program offered through the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and funded by the National Science Foundation.

Her research focuses on measuring the spectral characteristics of the creosote bush, one of the most common shrubs of the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts.

"I have been testing the accuracy of different spectral indices in predicting the water content of this shrub, which will help when trying to measure plant water status remotely. The ability to use optical analysis to measure the status of this shrub would be highly useful in tracking patterns of natural and anthropogenic stress factors in the Mojave desert," she explained.

As a senior scholar in the undergraduate research program this year, Sevilla will focus on writing her research project for publication.

"In order for our students to get the full experience of doing research, we encourage them to write up their projects and submit them for publication and critical review," Sandquist said.

Sevilla also serves as the event coordinator for the Undergraduate Biology Club and works in the college's greenhouse complex.


The DEVELOP National Program is a capacity-building internship sponsored by NASA’s Applied Sciences Program, which provides young professionals and interns the opportunity to learn about NASA Earth Science and the practical applications of Earth observations. For more information about the program and its internships, visit the program website.

Sevilla's DEVELOP team project and video can be viewed online.

By: Debra Cano Ramos, 657-278-4027

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