Early Career Spotlight

Andréa Puzzi Nicolau

 Tell us about yourself:

I am originally from Niterói, a city close to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and I am finishing my Master’s in Earth System Science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). I came to UAH because of an opportunity to work as a Graduate Research Assistant with the NASA SERVIR program. This is a program that creates innovative solutions utilizing geospatial data to address environmental issues in developing countries. My passion for environmental studies began when I chose to study Environmental Engineering for my undergrad. I am also passionate about exploring new places and learning about new cultures. My love for travel led me to Canada for six months as an exchange student to learn English and a year in England owing to a scholarship in Environmental Science. This trip immensely contributed to my personal growth and I somehow knew that I would live overseas again which was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What is your research about?

My research focuses on the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon which is a biodiversity hotspot. Deforestation is a major issue there due to resource exploitation such as mining, agriculture, cattle ranching, among others. Therefore, my research includes analyzing spatial patterns of deforestation and how they impact conservation areas such as protected areas and indigenous territories, utilizing optical imagery from Landsat 7 and 8 and Spectral Mixture Analysis. I am currently testing Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data, specifically from Sentinel-1, to classify land uses and covers as an effort to distinguish deforestation drivers.

 What excites you about your research?

I think it is very neat to study and assess the impacts of deforestation in the Amazon from space - not being physically present but being able to contribute through a screen! This perspective also allows the results of this research to be reproducible and applied to other regions. Additionally, the Amazon is the biggest rainforest in the world and it is home to millions of species and hundreds of indigenous communities, which makes it close to my heart.

What broader importance does your research have for society?

The Amazon rainforest provides invaluable ecosystem services to multiple nations in South America such as rainfall and temperature reduction and even contributes to their economic growth. Indigenous cultural knowledge systems are at risk along with biodiversity because of human development. The results from this research help understand patterns of forest loss and improve identification of deforestation drivers. This is relevant towards improving sustainable land management and can aid global initiatives such as the UNFCCC’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+). There are already deforestation monitoring systems in place that tell us where and when deforestation is happening. However, in order to have an impact on how to prevent deforestation, we need to know what is causing it, and this is my research goal - complement current systems with additional actionable information.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science?

As a kid, I always enjoyed being outdoors and I learned very early that we needed to take care of nature. In school my favorite classes were Math, Physics, and Science. For those reasons I chose to do Environmental Engineering for my bachelor’s. A second part to it came from a feeling of wanting to help others. I remember talking to a friend right after I graduated about wanting to work with something that would generate a positive impact for society, and Earth Science is really about understanding our home planet and creating solutions to take care of it. Therefore, it was a perfect match when I found out about the opportunity to do my masters in Earth Science and learned about the amazing work done by the SERVIR program and - I did not think twice!

What are you looking to do after you complete your PhD?

After I complete my master’s, I will be temporarily supporting the SERVIR program in a full time position. Overall, I want to keep doing research related to land use and land cover, expand my knowledge on remote sensing, and also focus on capacity building in developing countries - I think it is of absolute importance to make science more accessible.

Given unlimited funding and access to resources, what is your dream project that you would pursue?

Given unlimited resources I would start research institutions that combine indigenous knowledge with western science worldwide - I think together they can contribute substantially to modern science. Western science is based on data, facts, arguments, and results, whereas indigenous perspectives are holistic and founded upon interconnectedness, reciprocity and the absolute respect for nature. Because both have their own approaches and perspectives with their own strengths and weaknesses, I think they could vastly complement one another. I would also love to create open schools which connect children to nature for creating an environmentally conscious generation.

 What else do you do?  Any hobbies or interests outside of work?

I love hiking and exploring new places. I also play badminton, soccer, and enjoy watching documentaries. Once I finish my master's I want to have a side project related to sustainability for the city of Huntsville, I have tried something similar with composting back home.


If you know of an early career EPSP researcher (PhD student or Postdoc) who deserves to have a spotlight on them, you can nominate them here.

Andrea analyzing Sentinel-1 data on the powerful Google Earth Engine.