Reaching for the Stars: Advice from a Scientist in Satellite Research

Dr. Heather McNairn is a top research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AFFC) Ottawa Research and Development Centre. She specializes in Earth observation research, which involves using satellite data in agriculture.

What’s one thing that would surprise people about satellite research in agriculture?

Canada is a leader in satellite technology. We specialize in a special class of satellites called Radars—they are different from optical satellites that take pictures in visible and infrared wavelengths. Radars use energy at longer wavelengths and can capture data regardless of cloud cover. Canada has a long history of engineering these types of satellites, operating them in space, and—where AAFC comes in—using them for mapping agriculture.

Most Canadians probably don’t know that we use satellites to map every crop that is growing in every field across Canada, and we do this every year to produce the Annual Crop Inventory.

How did you get into your line of work?

I sort of meandered my way through my career! Some people have a life plan and certain career in mind, but sometimes you meander your way through your career like I have. I just followed my nose and what I found interesting. I did my undergrad at the University of Waterloo in Environmental Studies, and after that I thought I would never go back to school. I worked for a couple years, and then an opportunity came up to do my masters at the University of Guelph. I thought why not? My masters research developed a method to use satellite data to map soil tillage. That eventually led me to doing my PhD part-time while working full time at Natural Resources Canada. I was also a mother to two young children at the time—that was not easy!  

What is your most memorable moment at work?

In 2012 NASA approached my team with a challenge. They were launching a new satellite called SMAP which was to be used to measure soil moisture to improve things like drought forecasting. The SMAP team wanted to ensure that their algorithms would meet a high accuracy standard set for the satellite mission. This included accurately estimating soil moisture on farmland. We hosted a big campaign in Manitoba which ran for six weeks and involved 75 people from Canada and the US. NASA flew two aircrafts to develop the methods, and we collected an enormous amount of field data which was then used to test and adapt NASA’s algorithms. After the launch of SMAP in 2015, we were approached again to host a second campaign in 2016. This post-launch experiment helped to improve the accuracy of soil moisture products from the SMAP satellite. Following the 2012 and 2016 experiments, the data were released to the public and are being used by researchers around the world. NASA sent a letter to AAFC, thanking our team for our contributions.

Is there something we can do to support women in science?

Role models and mentorship are very important. It takes just one person to make a difference—one person in your life who you look up to and who inspires you. I currently mentor two young women who I meet with once a month to talk about their careers and other things in their life. Whenever I talk with them they always strike me as so accomplished and together, and I often wonder why they need me. But sometimes you just need someone there. I think it’s important for employers and professional organizations to offer mentorship programs.

We also need support mechanisms in place for women scientists and their families. It can be hard as a women with young children and needing time to look after them. It can also be hard as a women to walk into a meeting room full of men. It can be intimidating. People should be aware of that and find opportunities to make her feel at ease.

What advice would you give to young people interested in a career in science?

Work hard and follow your passion. I tell my kids: just relax. Don’t worry too much about your career, because if you have a passion, and you work hard, the doors will open for you. And sometimes they will open in ways you didn’t expect.

For young women, we need to change the conversation from “can I be a scientist?” to “why wouldn’t I be a scientist!”

What are your hobbies, and do they influence your work as a scientist?

I’m currently teaching fitness classes—I love the inspiration part of it. I’m such a big believer in how important it is to have fitness as part of your life. I tell people: set goals for yourself and move up gradually. The progress they make is inspiring. Fitness activities are also a great physical outlet and stress reliever.

What do you hope to see in your field in the next 10 years?

There is an incredible wealth of technologies in the pipeline around the world. Canada and many other countries are developing new radar satellites, and these satellites will have much greater capabilities. Access to these data will be absolutely incredible. Most of the data will be provided free of charge, which will open up new applications. But currently there is a bit of a gap between the science and the uptake, which will require education. My hope is to see greater uptake of the methodologies and technologies in the sector. We will have a lot of great data coming our way from space, and we need to find a way to transfer it to users.

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