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Fred Huemmrich finds his happy place at JCET

Dr. Fred Huemmrich is a beacon of hope for every undergraduate student who is unsure of their professional future. In some ways, Huemmrich is just an average Joe. He enjoys the outdoors: canoeing, hiking, cross-country skiing, bird watching and the like. His co-worker, Dr. Peyta Campbell, remarked that he is “kind, positive, a good speaker and comes up with ideas how to explain difficult issues and propose good practical solutions. He works consistently and enthusiastically and this is very motivating for others.”

Huemmrich is currently a research professor for UMBC’s Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology department. He gathers and studies remotely-sensed data to understand ecosystems. More specifically, he studies the detection and description of plant stress across the globe. In his most recent research, he analyzed data collected from two spectrometer devices attached to NASA satellites to study plant stress in evergreens. He is a “soft money” scientist which means that he funds his research by applying for grants from government agencies like NASA.

“Field work has probably been my favorite part of my job over the years,” Huemmrich said. “Just last week, I worked in Puerto Rico. I have worked on field campaigns in Kansas grasslands, boreal forests in the arctic tundra, deserts, and now tropical forests.”

Huemmrich has loved studying nature since he joined a student chapter of the Audubon Society at his high school in Pittsburgh. There, he spent a lot of time in the woods caring for a local wildlife preserve. He then attended Carnegie Mellon University, where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in physics. Shortly after he graduated, the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland hired him as a computer programmer.

At Goddard, he worked with the spacecraft attitude of NASA satellite — how the satellites point and move in space. Huemmrich was able to hone his already proficient programming skills at Goddard, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to become a full-time programmer. So, he enrolled in the graduate program to study geography at the University of Maryland, College Park and earned a Ph.D in 1995.

While continuing to work at Goddard, Huemmrich programmed equipment as part of a team that used microwave sensing to map the decline of sea ice using satellite data. “Back in those days, we were just starting to learn how to create those maps of declining that you see all the time nowadays,” he said.

With this job, Huemmrich found himself at a crossroad that would lead to his professional happy place. Did he want to become a full-time programmer, or a scientist? While programming promised an exciting and lucrative career future, he chose to follow the profession that he adored since his years in high school. “I chose to be a scientist.” Laughing, he said, “that definitely wasn’t the more profitable decision!”

Nonetheless, his current profession allows him to combine his love for nature with the programming and technical skills that he mastered throughout his college and early professional years. “My job is a very happy place where I can study ecosystems using my knowledge of physics to understand the technological systems that we use,” Huemmrich said. He could not be more satisfied with his current career. “I’m way more passionate about my current job than any of my previous jobs,” he said.

Huemmrich points out that he did not reach his professional happy place instantaneously. “When I was an undergraduate student, not only did I not know what I wanted to do – I didn’t even know that what I’d end up doing even existed,” he said.

After years of work and discovery, Huemmrich takes pride in his accomplishments. “It is just amazing how much our understanding of the planet has changed in the past 30 years since I was an undergraduate,” he said. “Admittedly, I’ve been just a tiny cog in all of it, but it has been a very exciting time.”