New center director to take NASA-supported Earth science research into next era at UMBC

Published: Jan 27, 2023

NASA satellites can detect near-real-time active fire data from around the world. Incoming GESTAR II director Charles Ichoku has spent decades using data like this from NASA satellites to investigate fire and other global phenomena on Earth and in the sky. (Image courtesy of NASA)

The UMBC-led Goddard Earth Science Technology and Research (GESTAR) Center II includes over 120 researchers advancing Earth and atmospheric sciences and launching the next generation of scientists. GESTAR II scientists and engineers are tracking the effects of shipping regulations on air pollution, predicting fires in India, and much more, often relying on data collected via remote sensing from NASA satellites. 

NASA awarded $72 million for UMBC to establish GESTAR II in fall 2021, in collaboration with primary partner Morgan State University and six other institutions. After a national search, a new director is taking the helm of this high-impact collaboration.

portrait of Charles Ichoku, wearing glasses and a suit.
Charles Ichoku (image courtesy of Ichoku)

The new director, Charles Ichoku, brings deep and well-rounded experience in Earth science research, at NASA, and in student development programs—exactly the elements GESTAR II brings together and hopes to expand upon. Ichoku comes to GESTAR II from concurrent roles as professor of Earth and environmental sciences at Howard University and as the Distinguished Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Cooperative Science Center in Atmospheric Sciences and Meteorology (NCAS-M). Prior to that, he served at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland for 20 years in various research and management roles.

“Dr. Ichoku brings impressive credentials to this important leadership position at UMBC, not only as a world-class scientist, but also as a long-term NASA-based scientist and program manager,” shares Karl V. Steiner, Vice President for Research and Creative Achievement at UMBC. “He is a perfect fit for both GESTAR II and UMBC.”

Earth science from hundreds of miles up

Ichoku’s research program focuses on applying remote sensing—collecting data from a significant distance, most often from satellites orbiting Earth—and other data to study large-scale processes that affect the environment on land, weather, and air quality. In addition to directing GESTAR II, Ichoku will have an appointment as professor of geography and environmental systems (GES) at UMBC, where he will continue to conduct research, mentor students, and teach courses.

“GES is a good fit,” Ichoku says, “because I’m not just looking at developing the approaches and instrumentation to measure specific parameters, but I’m interested in how you apply the data, knowledge, and science to actually understand phenomena that happen on the ground and in the atmosphere.”

grayscale image of swirlin clouds; righthand panel includes purple lines indicating ship tracks
An image collected by NASA’s MODIS satellite of the U.S. West Coast (left) shows tracks of air pollution generated by shipping traffic (purple lines, right), which was detected by a GESTAR II research team’s algorithm.

Elevating African research

Ichoku’s work is influenced by his youth in West Africa, and focuses on phenomena that especially affect that region. For example, frequent agricultural fires send various particles into the atmosphere, which can affect air quality, precipitation, and more. In addition, Lake Chad in Central Africa has nearly dried up over the last few decades in part because of severe drought, resulting in widespread conflict and suffering. Drought also sends dust and other particles into the atmosphere, affecting air quality. These particles and other environmental components (like clouds) interact with radiation from the Sun, driving processes that can adversely impact human life on Earth’s surface, Ichoku explains.

“I’m very interested in seeing research and the application of its results improve in Africa overall, but in particular in Western and Central Africa,” Ichoku says. “So I hope to be able to continue research in that region.”

five people stand on a roof, backed by wide blue sky and a distant view of the UMBC Library.
Belay Demoz, right, talks with students on the roof of the UMBC Physics Building. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

To that end, a few years ago Ichoku joined with colleagues to initiate the U.S.-West African Coastal Resilience Research Consortium (CRRC). In addition, he recently played an important role  in the inauguration of the African Meteorological Society (AfMS), where he serves as chair of the Diaspora and Friends of Africa Committee. The committee involves a significant number of colleagues who are similarly passionate about the advancement of scientific research and applications in Africa.  

Those colleagues include GESTAR II’s inaugural director, Belay Demoz, whose research is similarly inspired by experiences with drought, displacement, and resulting conflict during his youth in East Africa—challenges that continue today. Demoz, professor of physics at UMBC, will continue in his departmental role after Ichoku takes up his post.

Demoz notes Ichoku’s extensive experience with Howard University (which is also a partner in UMBC’s Center for Space Sciences Technology) and at NASA as strengths, and shares his interest in expanding UMBC’s research and education efforts in Africa. “I’m looking forward to him leading the next iteration of GESTAR II, and increasing involvement of GES in what we do,” Demoz says.

Clearing the pathway for students

In addition to his own research, Ichoku has demonstrated a deep commitment to student research and success throughout his career. He moved from NASA to Howard and NCAS-M so he could focus more on student training, particularly supporting underrepresented minority students in Earth science.

With NCAS-M, on top of his typical professorial duties, Ichoku was responsible for matching students with appropriate research projects and NOAA mentors across 13 institutions. He also supported students’ success throughout their graduate projects, ensuring they persisted to graduation and were prepared to be competitive for sought-after professional roles, often at NOAA, NASA, or in academia.

With Demoz, Ichoku also served as co-PI for the NASA-funded Student Airborne Science Activation (SaSa) project, involving three NASA centers and six minority-serving Institutions, including UMBC. This past summer, 24 students, including four from UMBC, spent four weeks at UMBC as part of the SaSa program

large group of students in front of an airplane on a runway
Participants in the 2022 SaSa program at NASA Wallops Flight Facility. (Image courtesy of Belay Demoz)

Now at GESTAR II, Ichoku is interested in continuing to enhance the connection between researchers, who often conduct their work at Goddard Space Flight Center, and members of the larger UMBC community—including students at all levels.

“I think it’s a good thing for a researcher to connect with students. Even if they are not teaching them in a traditional class setting, they can be mentors for interns, which I did myself for many years while I was at NASA as a research scientist,” Ichoku says. “I know that our faculty have a lot to offer to our students, so I will do my best to help facilitate that. My role will be to support the clearing of the pathway and the removal of any obstacles.”

A shining example

Ichoku also brings to GESTAR II and UMBC substantial experience in deepening relationships across institutions. He already has relationships with the scientific leads at other GESTAR II institutions, such as the Pennsylvania State University, Arizona State University, and University of Colorado Boulder, and is excited to continue working with them in a new capacity. 

“When we start talking, ideas will flow,” Ichoku says. “We will then synthesize the ideas into strategic initiatives and make them happen.”

Moving forward, Ichoku plans to continue to emphasize top-quality research while enhancing opportunities for students and building bridges between the GESTAR II institutions. And he is especially looking forward to doing all of that at UMBC.

students walking between brick academic buildings; a dusting of snow on the trees
Students bustle through UMBC’s Academic Row on a winter day. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

The opportunity to lead GESTAR II “is both a great pleasure and an honor for me, as I have always admired UMBC for being a shining example in all areas of university performance, including education, scholarship, research, innovation, technology, diversity, sports, environmental sustainability, and community outreach,” Ichoku says. “I am proud of UMBC for attaining the status of Carnegie R1 Doctoral Institution.”

“It is also a great blessing to have this wonderful opportunity to contribute to scientific discoveries and knowledge expansion for human advancement through NASA, and, in particular, Goddard Space Flight Center,” he adds. “I feel highly privileged to be involved in a program that connects two of the organizations that perform at the highest levels in their respective domains of activity, namely academia (UMBC) and space (NASA).” 

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