Innovative Research Boosts Grad into NASA’s Orbit
As a natural resources doctoral student at the University of Idaho, Troy Magney helped create tools that measure and map plants’ responses to stress.
Now, he’s taking those skills to NASA.
“If we can develop technologies on the ground, they can be used in space,” says Magney, who received UI’s 2015 Outstanding Doctoral Student Research and Creative Activity Award for his work.
Magney, who received his degree at UI in May, just began a position as a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. There, he works with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite, or OCO-2, which gathers data about Earth’s carbon dioxide.
His research at UI prepared him well for this career move. Magney worked with a team led by professors Lee Vierling and Jan Eitel of the College of Natural Resources’ Tom and Teita Reveley Geospatial Laboratory for Environmental Dynamics, helping to develop and test tools that measure plant photosynthesis. These remote-sensing technologies don’t directly contact plants, but rather use measurements, such as sunlight reflection, to make estimates.
When plants are under stress — from lack of fertilizer or available water, for instance — their capacity for producing biomass from photosynthesis drops. Monitoring fluctuations allows users to map when and where stresses are occurring.
“These tools could, for example, be mounted on a tractor for a farmer who wants to monitor his or her field through space and time,” Magney says.
Magney says his work with the tools gave him an understanding of all the elements that go into remote sensing.
“That goes from making the instruments, to coding and computer programming, to practical applications, to analysis and communication,” he says.
“What makes Troy really strong is no matter what he’s doing, he’s good at it,” Eitel says. “He’s one of those people who’s very strong in a wide variety of things, ranging from data analysis to dealing with people.”
Adds Vierling, “Troy is tremendously creative. Not only is he an excellent problem-solver, but he has the ability to find those key research questions that haven’t yet been asked, and then go on to apply his findings in many ways.”
Magney was drawn to UI not only to learn these skills, but also to apply them to on-the-ground, interdisciplinary research projects.
On the Palouse, Magney spent four summers working with the Site-Specific Climate-Friendly Farming project, a collaboration among Washington State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and UI. Its goal is to better understand the variables that affect plant growth on a field-by-field level, then use that information to develop agricultural tools to help farmers precisely apply nutrients.
“We work with three growers on the Palouse. These growers can use some of the tools we developed for their fields,” Magney says. “The idea that they can save money and the environment and the quality of their soil by mapping these patterns makes it easy to communicate the benefits to growers.”
Magney also spent two summers working in Alaska with researchers from UI and Columbia University to understand the effects of climate change on the Arctic ecosystem. His role was to use remote-sensing tools to map how plants are adapting to changes.
Both these projects challenged Magney to think about how his research will be used by people down the road.
“Theoretical science is a great and necessary thing, but it doesn’t do humanity any good until it’s applied,” he says.
• Article by Tara Roberts for the University of Idaho.