Science Alumni Spotlight: Cheila Cullen

February 1, 2021

Person standing on water edge

What is your academic background?
I received my Ph.D. in Physical Sciences from the Earth and Environmental Science Department at the Graduate Center back in 2016. In my dissertation work, I used various types of satellite data to build a computer model that helps determine the risk of rainfall-triggered shallow landslides.

What are your current research areas?

Currently, I work with satellite-based Earth observations and computer numerical models to improve the detection, assessment, and forecast of natural hazards. My main foci are landslides and landslide processes. As the climate changes, landslides increase in frequency and usually result in significant human and economic losses. However, my background in remote sensing and Geo-Information Systems (GIS) has also allowed me to collaborate with other experts and study other natural hazards. At the NASA Develop program, I worked with models to predict forest fires in Alaska, at the Hydrological lab at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, we studied landslides in South America, and with the CUNY NOAA-Crest Center, we currently examine hydrological processes that lead to urban flash flooding in Megacities.

Can you talk about a recent accomplishment?

This past summer, I joined the United Nations Global Risk Assessment Framework (GRAF) Expert Groups to provide technical assistance and recommendations for developing the framework. My specific group focuses on exploring projects to understand the context of hazards, exposure, and vulnerability, and to search for opportunities of alignment and synergies across the UN’s 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement, the New Urban Agenda, and the Sendai Framework.

Paralleling this association, I also serve as co-chair for the Climate Change Sub-Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Disaster Risk Reduction Secretariat. GEO is a partnership of a hundred governments and associates that work towards informing and coordinating comprehensive decision making by using coherent and sustained Earth observations.

These two associations provide me with the ability to bring my research from published scientific literature to pragmatic work with the capacity to influence change. I am honored to have the opportunity to do so.

What are some of your most memorable experiences at the Graduate Center?

My best experiences were the interactions with my classmates and mentors. At the Graduate Center, your classmates become your “cohort” for most of the journey until you graduate, and your professors sometimes become lifelong friends. I particularly remember one of our field campaigns, a 21-day geomorphological study of the Septentrional Fault Zone (SFZ) in northern Hispaniola. Professor M. Winslow, our group leader, and I experienced some physical setbacks at the beginning of the campaign. With no option for failure, my classmate J. Betancourt and I devised a plan in which both of us would cover the full territory. We accomplished our goal by completing a very detailed (10m) geological and stratigraphic mapping of the San Francisco Ridge. This campaign resulted in a very significant finding. We demonstrated a different stratigraphic sequence of the area than was previously reported. To this day, Dr. Winslow, who was amongst the first women in the field of Geology in the U.S., remains one of my most influential and valued mentors.

Dr. Johnny Luo, Dr. Reza Khanbilvardi, and Dr. Shakila Merchant, also part of the CUNY NOAA-Crest center, were also pivotal in my career development. I never thought that I wanted to be in academia. As a graduate student, I always imagined that I would work “in the field” managing disasters. My mentors felt otherwise. They thought my future path would be in academia. I did my time in professional positions until, in 2017, I taught my first class. The rest is history. Academia lets me be a researcher doing what I love and allows me to share what I have learned with other generations. In both paths, my mentors were always there to guide and support my career goals.

Rock Climbing

What advice would you give to current or prospective students in the program?

Do not hesitate to ask questions and collaborate with others as much as you can. Many times, graduate students believe that they should know things because they are in graduate school and feel uncomfortable asking questions. Do not ever think like that. You are still in the process of learning, and if you are on this path, you will always be. I am a firm believer that every aspect of life requires collaboration. Nothing in human history is an “isolated” event. Science is no exception. Science is a process. It stands on the work of past, current, and future generations working towards a goal. In my career, collaboration has been vital: help, criticism, encouragement, new ideas, all interactions have helped me grow as a scientist. I am sure they will help you too. So, go ahead, as some may say, stay curious!