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ECE and MIRSL Alumna Karen St. Germain Named NASA’s New Earth Science Division Director

Karen St. Germain

Karen St. Germain

Alumna Karen St. Germain, who earned her Ph.D. in 1993 from the UMass Electrical and Computer Engineering Department while doing research in The Microwave Remote Sensing Laboratory (MIRSL), has been named the new Earth Science Division director at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), effective June 8.

Until taking the NASA position, St. Germain was the deputy assistant administrator, systems, for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS). In that position, St. Germain guided the ongoing development and deployment of NOAA’s two major satellite programs – the Joint Polar Satellite System and the Geostationary Operational Environment Satellite – as well as the COSMIC-2 mission and Space Weather Follow-On.

By St. Germain’s own description, she was launched into her current career path during her time at UMass Amherst while doing sophisticated research for ECE’s MIRSL program, which specializes in remote sensing of the geophysical environment. 

“I got my start in earth science, up close and personal, flying through Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts,” explains St. Germain. “I was working on a new technique to observe ocean-surface wind speeds from aircraft altitude. That was a very exciting start to about a decade and a half R&D career that was in either collaboration with NASA or funded by NASA, largely focused on observing ocean-surface winds, Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, as well as glacial ice.”

St. Germain often cites her experience at MIRSL, where she learned the full, end-to-end process of remote sensing, as a key to her success. As she says, “From establishing the science-based observation objectives, building the instruments, collecting the measurements in the field, developing the algorithms, processing the data, and validating the results, MIRSL has provided students a rare hands-on opportunity to learn the entire remote sensing process.”

Since her Baptism by Hurricane into the earth science field in 1988, St. Germain has performed research aboard icebreakers in the Arctic and Antarctic, flown through hurricanes and tropical storms on NOAA’s P-3 airplanes, and measured glacial ice on a snowmobile traverse of the Greenland ice sheet.  But, beyond those adventurous, hands-on, research expeditions, she also has a plethora of administrative experience, according to NASA and the American Astronautical Society.

Prior to becoming deputy associate administrator at NOAA, St. Germain served as the director of NOAA’s Office of Systems Architecture and Advanced Planning, where she led enterprise-level mission architecture development and systems engineering to enable NESDIS to become a flexible, stable, and responsive civil space agency in support of NOAA’s mission.

St. Germain is an expert in major systems acquisition, with particular proficiency in transitioning new technology into operational systems and was NOAA’s lead for all aspects of performance during the development of the joint NASA-NOAA-DOD Suomi-NPP system from 2006 to 2011.

In 2011, St. Germain began work in the Space, Strategic, and Intelligence Systems Office (SSI), Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. At SSI, she led the Department of Defense’s (DoD) 2014 Strategic Portfolio Review for Space.

St. Germaine also led the Remote Sensing and Prompt Strike Division within SSI, where she was responsible for shaping acquisition and oversight of DoD’s strategic missile warning and space-based environmental monitoring portfolio and was also program director of the Conventional Prompt Global Strike Program.

In addition, St. Germain led the modeling and calibration of the WindSat Coriolis mission, launched in 2003 as the first spaceborne radiometer to measure ocean surface wind direction.

St. Germain holds a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Union College (1987) and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Electrical Engineering from UMass Amherst (1993). She is also a Distinguished Graduate of the National War College, National Defense University, where she earned a Master of Science degree in National Security Strategy in 2013.

Beyond those degrees, the launching pad for St. Germain’s very productive career was MIRSL. Founded in 1981 by Professors Robert E. McIntosh and Calvin T. Swift, MIRSL specializes in the conception, design, and implementation of advanced microwave and millimeter-wave systems for remote sensing of the geophysical environment. Since its founding, MIRSL has graduated over 100 advanced-degree students such as St. Germain who now work in industry, academia, and government. (July 2020)