Dr. Doug Rickman’s journey to the frontiers of science started because he wanted his big brother’s merit badge.
Rickman remembers as a young boy studying a photo of his Eagle Scout brother. "He had his merit badge sash on, and there was a badge there that was absolutely gorgeous," Rickman recalls. It was the merit badge for geology. "I said, ‘I like that. I want to do that.’"
Some 35 years later, Rickman holds a doctorate in geology, and his work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., has reached beyond rocks, into satellite imagery, improved eyesight and even the future of farming.
Along the way, the Joplin, Mo., native has studied magnetic resonance images of the human brain, directed software development for weather analysis, used satellites to detect Colorado ore deposits, and examined fish scales and turtle flippers. His work on the medical applications of digital image processing even earned him induction into the U.S. Space Foundation’s Space Technology Hall of Fame.
"I ended up doing all these seemingly unrelated things. And it’s a long way from ‘rockology,’" he said. "But they actually all have a fundamental straightforward relationship. They all deal with images."
Rickman, 48, is one of the Marshall Center’s leading researchers in remote sensing – the use of cameras and other technologies to examine objects from great distances. Working at Marshall’s Global Hydrology and Climate Center, he uses optical equipment like satellite photography to spur new developments in other science fields. The self-described "mad scientist" said remote sensing is not as far removed from geology as it may seem.
"Geologists have, for decades, been trained to use aerial photography," he said. "One could think of satellite imagery as a particular type of photograph."
Rickman recently returned to his geologist’s aerial photography roots, refining the concept of "precision farming." In traditional farming operations, growers spread fertilizer and water uniformly over a field. With precision farming, growers use data collected from air- or space-borne sensors to analyze growth characteristics of areas just a few yards across.
"We can fly over an area and precisely map its plant quality and soil makeup -- including mineral variation and organic carbon content -- in approximately 6-foot increments," Rickman said. Armed with this data, farmers can improve crop health and yield by applying precise amounts of seed, fertilizer and pesticides as needed.
Rickman’s remote sensing work also has led to improvements of a more personal nature – the gift of sight for the legally blind.
Rickman was a lead researcher on LVES, a low-vision enhancement system developed in the early 1990s by NASA and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Most legally blind people still retain some sight. But they cannot function normally with that limited sight," he said. "In many cases, our system lets them lead a somewhat normal life."
Eyeglasses cannot intensify the brightness of what a person can see, only the clarity. The new system "cures" both. A blind person wears a lightweight headset with mounted video cameras. The cameras feed what they see into circuitry that digitizes and manipulates the image to compensate for the weaknesses of the particular wearer’s vision – even brightening the image, if necessary. The improved image is then displayed inside the headset, bringing a clear picture to the person.
Today, the system is used by many people around the world.
Rickman graduated from Joplin’s Parkwood High School in 1969. He earned his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Missouri at Rolla, and his master’s in geology from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro. His work with remote sensing began in 1980 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. He joined the Marshall Center in 1992.
When Rickman’s not finding new ways to "look" at things, he spends time with his wife, the former Sharon Shaver of Kirkwood, Mo., and three children: Dwight, 20; Barbara, 18; and Kathleen, 14.
Rickman is the son of Betty Rickman, who resides in Joplin.
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