Gay Jane Perez: The Philippines’ Space Whisperer

For helping launch the Philippines’ first microsatellites, Dr. Gay Jane Perez is proof that the sky’s the limit in agricultural innovation.

AsianScientist (Feb. 24, 2021) – El Niño, the seasonal warming of ocean waters in the central and eastern Pacific, has for centuries caused droughts, agricultural decline and famine across Asia—perhaps even precipitating the demise of the Khmer Empire centered at Angkor in the fifteenth century.

So it is perhaps fitting that Gay Jane Perez, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman’s Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology, was herself inspired by a desire to mitigate El Niño’s effects, in her pioneering work on improving agricultural yields using satellite data.

“Looking at the Philippines through satellite images, I saw that there really is a relationship between temperature and vegetation,” said Perez, upon becoming the first Filipino to win the ASEAN-US Science Prize for Women in 2018. “I was at NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] in 2010, while we were having El Niño in the country.”

Perez completed her bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees in physics at UP. She then joined the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory on a postdoctoral fellowship in 2010.

There she learned how to process, analyze and interpret satellite data. The experience also helped her own research on remote-sensing applications, and prepared her to lead the team that sent the first-ever Philippine-made microsatellite, Diwata-1, into orbit in 2016, followed by two more successors, Maya-1 and Diwata-2, in 2018. The satellites assist in monitoring natural and cultural heritage sites and observing weather disturbances, among other things.

Yet their primary function is in agriculture, where Perez uses satellite data to examine parameters like vegetation, surface temperature, rainfall and soil moisture. This, in turn, allows the prediction of drought impacts. Her research also includes an assessment of how drought evolves through time, which can inform drought forecasts and corresponding mitigation measures.

This system initially showed a 73 percent accuracy in identifying drought occurrences in pilot areas.

“Farmers can be advised early on where to plant and what to plant and if there’s drought, when to irrigate,” said Perez to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

For the second phase of this project, Perez intends to collaborate with crop scientists and agriculture engineers to develop a more personalized system for disseminating such important information to the millions of farmers scattered across the Philippines.

Perez believes that localized precision agriculture interventions can and will naturally be scaled up for the entire planet.

“Using satellite data will allow us to do this since the extent of images has global coverage and are available at spatiotemporal resolutions that [suit] precision agriculture applications,” she said.

Perez credits a “healthy environment” in her formative years at home for her success. This includes support from her parents who, despite not completing college, were themselves encouraging of her own academic pursuits. She thought of studying medicine or even becoming an astronaut, “my farfetched dream.”

Yet it is precisely because of her work that the dream might one day be realized by the Philippines.

“It’s very much likely that we’ll have our own female astronaut in the future, especially if we can establish our space agency soon and sustain the initial efforts that we’ve made in space science and technology,” said Perez.

True enough, just a year after Perez won her prize, the country signed into law the creation of the Philippine Space Agency.

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