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Students Complete Virtual NASA Internships in Bhutan

Last Updated on October 26, 2020 at 8:00 AM

Originally published October 26, 2020

By Julian Herrera

UTEP Communications

Nine Bhutanese students from The University of Texas at El Paso had the opportunity to perform ecological research during the summer in the southern region of the Kingdom of Bhutan as interns in a partnership between the Bhutan Foundation and NASA.

Sonam Choden, a UTEP chemistry major, performed analytical research in collaboration with the Southern Bhutan Ecological Forecasting team as part of the NASA DEVELOP program this summer. Photo: Courtesy
Sonam Choden, a UTEP chemistry major, performed analytical research in collaboration with the Southern Bhutan Ecological Forecasting team as part of the NASA DEVELOP program this summer. Photo: Courtesy

The students were awarded internships with NASA’s DEVELOP internship program, which focused on mitigating human-wildlife conflict by identifying elephant corridors in southern Bhutan, as well as analyzing the climatic shifts in the Eastern Himalayan nation throughout the past 40 years.

“We are grateful to the Bhutan Foundation and NASA for their partnership, which enabled students not only to gain valuable academic and professional experience, but the opportunity to work on projects that directly impact their home country, the Kingdom of Bhutan,” said Catie McCorry-Andalis, Ed.D., associate vice president and dean of students at UTEP. “UTEP has a long and special relationship with both Bhutan and NASA, and this summer’s partnership is another example of the strong and unwavering commitment to hands-on learning experiences that directly impact the community and support student success.” 

For more than a century, UTEP has celebrated a special relationship with the Kingdom of Bhutan that began with an architectural style at the young college campus in 1917 that was inspired by the Himalayan kingdom. The University has since constructed nearly all of its buildings in the Bhutanese style and displays numerous examples of the country’s culture and traditions. In addition, dozens of Bhutanese students have completed their undergraduate and graduate degrees at UTEP.

Sonam Choden, a UTEP chemistry major, was assigned to the Southern Bhutan Ecological Forecasting team. Her primary project was modeling Asian elephants along the southern border of Bhutan, and using NASA Earth Observation to counter the progression of human-animal conflict of the endangered species. Her team processed data pertaining to variables that affect elephant occurrence, documenting areas of conflict and strategically contributing to the conservation of the elephants.

Choden was initially going to be stationed at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland during her internship. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was adapted and carried out virtually. Choden attended at least two virtual meetings per day with the team and a supervisor, participated in various sessions organized by the program, and contacted multiple individuals with extensive knowledge about the project’s efforts and goals.

“This project has helped me in a lot of areas, technical and professional,” said Choden, who added that her research capabilities, time management, and teamwork skills were enhanced by her experience. “Going into the program, I did not know anything about NASA Earth Observations, programming, or the use of any of the software we used. I now have a better understanding of them. I think that all the knowledge I have gained from the program will have a great impact on my future career.”

The Bhutan Water Resources team assisted the Himalayan Environmental Rhythm Observation and Evaluation System (HEROES) project in assessing climate vulnerability in Bhutan. 

Tshering Yangzom, director of programs and external relations for the Bhutan Foundation in Washington, D.C., expressed great pride in the progress and impact of the UTEP students’ work.

“The Bhutan Foundation was excited to partner with NASA DEVELOP and our partners on the ground in Bhutan to support these Bhutanese students during their internship,” Yangzom said. “We were thrilled to help the students find research projects that have real applications on the ground in Bhutan to support climate change research and wildlife conservation initiatives. These partnerships support the overall goals of the Royal Government of Bhutan to enhance STEM education of Bhutanese students in Bhutan and abroad.”