Natchez woman has key role in helping developing countries
Published 12:06 am Wednesday, March 18, 2015
A Natchez native is at the forefront of a NASA project aimed at helping protect property and save lives in nations across the globe.
Cynthia “Tia” Kaiser Ferguson is project manager of Servir at NASA in Huntsville, Ala.
“Servir is a Spanish word that means to serve,” Ferguson said. “Basically, the goal of the project is to take satellite data and create applications that can be used in developing countries around the world to make climate-change decisions.”
Servir is a project operated jointly by NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“It started in 2004 and U.S.A.I.D. joined in 2005. Our Project Director Dan Irwin was actually hiking through Guatemala and doing land surveys in the area, much like my father does when he surveys in Natchez,” she said.
Ferguson is the daughter of Hayden and Barbara Kaiser Jr. of Natchez. Kaiser is a civil engineer at Jordan, Kaiser and Sessions, a Natchez engineering and surveying firm, as is Ferguson’s brother, Hayden Kaiser III.
Ferguson said a NASA scientist laid out a satellite map (of the area he surveyed), which caused Irwin to ask the question, “Why is NASA not sharing this data?”
“It was his ‘aha’ moment. Dan started lobbying NASA to start the program,” she said.
One of the applications of the project is to help nations have advance warning of catastrophic events, such as floods.
“In Bangladesh, 160 million people are affected by floods every year. They have a very sophisticated weather forecasting system, but up until this project, they were unable to predict flooding because India wasn’t willing to share their water tables,” she said.
Bordering India to its west, Bangladesh is home to the second-largest river basin in the world. The country collects much of the water flowing in the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers as they flow toward the Bay of Bengal.
By the end of the monsoon season, which is June through September, about one third of Bangladesh is under water, according to NASA data.
NASA experts suggest that climate changes, altered rainfall patterns, increased glacial melt and the like have disrupted formerly predictable flood cycles, which affects Bangladeshi farmers.
“With satellite data from Jason 2 (the name of a NASA satellite), they can now measure pretty accurately the height of the river,” Ferguson said.
That data allows forecasters to increase the warning time leading up to flooding.
“For instance, they had a flood last year that affected 250,000 homes and 17 people lost their lives,” she said.
In past, similar floods, thousands of lives were lost. Warning time was increased as much as five days.
“We are investigating the causalities right now,” Ferguson said. She said it has yet to be determined how many of the lives saved are attributable to the new information available to the people of Bangladesh from the NASA satellite data, “but it looks pretty good.”
Ferguson is a 1985 graduate of Trinity High School in Natchez. She earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tulane University in 1989.
She began her career with NASA that same year at Kennedy Space Center in Cocoa Beach, Fla.
“I worked on space hardware my whole career. At Kennedy, I put together the experiments that went on the space shuttle. I got to climb all over the shuttle,” Ferguson said. “My eyesight never met the requirements for going into space. It’s funny now that they have started accepting candidates who have had Lasik surgery. But it’s a little late in my career for that.”
As project manager of the Servir project, Ferguson is responsible for budgeting, schedules, procurement and manpower.
She is married to Jim Ferguson of Natchez, who is a 1981 graduate of Cathedral High School. He is a teacher at Challenger Middle School in Huntsville, Ala.
The Fergusons are parents of two children: Kate, a high school junior; and Rigg, a high school sophomore.
For more information on Servir, visit Servirglobal.net.