A trailblazer in the field of remote sensing, single mother and computer scientist Nancy Podger ’81 graduated from the College of William and Mary and promptly launched herself into a career filled with travel, research and adventure.
From starting the varsity women’s soccer team to pursuing an iconic career at DigitalGlobe, Podger has yet to slow down from her college days. Currently ideating a project that will take DigitalGlobe’s archived satellite imagery and share with colleges and universities, Podger continues to excel in the world of geographic information systems and remote sensing.
Podger got her professional start at the Federal Reserve Board as computer program analyst, then shifted to NASA’s International Hallye Watch Team where she discovered her interest in imaging and the sciences. From there, she obtained her master’s degree in environmental monitoring at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and went to work at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.
At the East-West Center, Podger spent her time in Langtang National Park just north of Kathmandu on the Tibet border of Nepal, researching the red panda.
“Our boss set up a project where I would go over with all of the GIS GPS systems which were very different at the time … and the signal was downgraded,” Podger said. “We had to sit there with an antenna and I ended up building a pole because when I’d go to other places I’d have to get above the tree line but I’d put the antenna on top of the pole and I’d have to collect data for about 20 minutes and then once we’d get all of the data we’d have to download it onto a computer and crank it out and then I’d get the location.”
After collecting the data, Podger and her team would go back to their lab to download and process it and eventually get a final GPS location.
“What we were doing was we were getting the trails of the pastoral herders,” Podger said. “They would herd and get milk and actually make cheese in the middle of Langtang National Park and bring it to the markets in Kathmandu and so we found out the tracks of the herders and we could overlay it with the habitat information for the panda.”
Podger and her team would then overlay this data with the park’s terrain and landsat imagery. They discovered that herders were separating mothers from their babies during breeding season, leaving the babies to die. Their research led to policy changes that protected the red pandas.
“We ended up proposing a policy where the herders wouldn’t go through certain areas during breeding season,” Podger said.
Remote sensing and GIS was a relatively new field when Podger got her start. Many people were still curious about the importance of spatial analysis and how to use the technology. Podger was not only working in a trailblazing field, but she was also a trailblazer within the field, often one of the only woman in the office.
“[At NASA] the whole team was maybe 30 people and I was the only female and that was for a good part of my career until I actually moved to Colorado,” Podger said. “Of course there’s obstacles you know, you think you’re banging against the glass ceiling but you wonder, you know?”
Despite her colleague’s crude jokes and nude images that littered their office, Podger said she was still respected for her skills, and figured she could leave if she was ever too unhappy.
“I think it’s become a lot more women-friendly ,but with all of that I mean there are obstacles but there’s always grit to,” Podger said. “There’s always people who want to promote you and help you if you’re working. You know, if you’re doing what you should be. If the environment got too bad then I just figured I could leave and find something else. It’s lonely sometimes when you’re the only woman. It’s nice to see enough women around that you can have a variety of choices for friends… I definitely ran into people who did not appreciate having a woman in their field.”
After returning home, Podger went back to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue her Ph.D. in environmental monitoring. After her first project idea was shot down, Podger stumbled for some time before finishing her final project and graduating in 2004. Stumbling, Podger said, should be expected in any career path.
“When I was younger you know I’d get so worried at certain times of my life but you have your ups and downs, right” Podger said. “Sometimes things are going well and sometimes they’re not and you get really hard on yourself. I’d say now in retrospect when I look back, it’s like, be kind. Just be kind to yourself and be kind to others and I think if you’re just tenacious and if you just continue to work it’s going to be okay but there no doubts you’ll trip. I don’t know a single person who hasn’t tripped in their life multiple times.”
But regardless of the stumbles, Podger said women in all fields should go for it and look for support wherever they can find it.
“Go for it,” Podger said. “You can always find people who aren’t going to support you but you can always find people who are. And if you’re not happy, then move… Now that I’m older they’re definitely women around in my office which is really great, so they’re coming in.”