Applied Science - School of Earth & Environment grad sees future in disaster mitigation

Applied Science - School of Earth & Environment grad sees future in disaster mitigation


Her career aspirations are the stuff of which movies are made.

Mairen Flanagan, who graduated from Rowan University in December, applied for a NASA internship “on a complete lark” and landed the work experience of a lifetime.

Working virtually at NASA’s headquarters in Washington from her home in Point Pleasant, Flanagan did so well in her internship with the agency’s Disasters program this winter that it’s been extended three additional months.

According to its web site, the program’s professionals “use data and applied research to improve the prediction of, preparation for, response to and recovery from hazards and disasters around the world.”

“I was exploring different careers involving disaster mitigation and I came across the NASA Disasters program,” Flanagan said. “Classes I took at Rowan led me to it and, on a complete lark, I emailed the program manager. Imagine my surprise when I got an invitation to a meeting.”

A geology major in the School of Earth & Environment with a minor in chemistry and a certificate of undergraduate studies in French, Flanagan earned a near perfect GPA during her time at Rowan, which she attended on an academic scholarship. But it wasn’t just her degrees that set her on the career path she now walks.

Taking courses through Rowan’s popular Disaster Preparedness & Emergency Management program, Flanagan discovered a way to apply the science she loves to a career directly impacting others.

Partly inspired by the Pierce Brosnan character in the movie “Dante’s Peak,” in which the scientist seeks to mitigate damage from an impending volcanic eruption, Flanagan said there’s a great need for scientists to help prepare for, anticipate and react to the seemingly unending stream of natural disasters.

Every year, she noted, climate change seemingly worsens the frequency and severity of floods, hurricanes, forest fires, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and droughts, and the NASA program was created specifically to address their impact in the U.S. and around the world.

“I’ve always wanted to help people and disasters are a perfect way to use the science background I’ve accumulated to help facilitate change,” she said.

Beginning her internship in January, just days after the massive volcanic eruption off Tonga in the South Pacific, Flanagan saw how scientists within the Disasters program effect real change.

“They provided data and resources to the agencies that were actively responding,” Flanagan said. “That’s where the science background comes into play.”

Undergraduate research

Like many Rowan students, Flanagan took part in actual, hands-on original research as an undergraduate.

Working with Dr. Gerald Rustic, an assistant professor of Geology, Flanagan helped analyze the fossilized remnants of tiny ocean creatures collected from Pacific Ocean core samples. The goal: to determine their chemical composition and, from that, the oceanic conditions from when the organisms lived.

The process involved crushing shells from tiny foraminifera, single-celled organisms the size of a grain of sand, and running them through a machine called a mass spectrometer to determine their elements.

“If you look at the ratios you can put them into an equation and get the temperature of the ocean at the time the forams lived,” Flanagan said. “We were looking at the Holocene, the last 12,000 years, which is important because if you look at what happened in the past it can be a good predictor of what will happen in the future.”

Dedicated scholar and future plans

Flanagan this semester is receiving the Dean’s Outstanding Senior Award, one of three students in the School of Earth & Environment to be so honored this year.

As for her future, Flanagan believes she’ll likely pursue a graduate degree in one of the sciences or emergency management but first wants to see how her NASA internship develops.

“I would love to work there,” she said. “If an opportunity comes up I will jump on it full force. I love volcanoes, the work they do with them, and I’m a disaster movie buff. I’d love to be involved and helping make decisions when something was happening.”