From NASA to Nigeria: Timmera Whaley’s Journey

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A NASA consultancy. A transformative Fulbright experience in Nigeria. A master’s degree in environmental science.

Since graduating from Colgate University in 2015, Timmera Whaley has used these experiences of which many can only dream to explore her passion for environmental justice.

After graduating with a self-designed degree in global studies, Whaley left Colgate with the ability to adapt to variable situations by researching information and maintaining a self-starter attitude. This prowess, says Whaley, has driven her throughout her career.

“To go out and explore and to look outside of the classroom to learn has helped me,” Whaley says.

Her journey after Colgate began in her home state of Alabama, at Tuskegee University, where she pursued her master’s degree. There, Whaley found two of her true loves: her husband and Geographic Information Systems.  

My thesis research found that communities of color and low-income communities lived significantly closer — and in clusters — to industries that manage waste or have pollution by-products,” Whaley says. “In my opinion, my findings were not shocking, because communities around the United States have historically spoken about these issues; rather, my findings scientifically validated their voices using maps to spatially display the inequities.”

During the summer break from her graduate studies at Tuskegee, Whaley participated in NASA’s DEVELOP National Program as an independent research consultant. The program uses interdisciplinary projects to address environmental issues. Whaley’s 10-week collaborative project at the Langley Research Center focused on using satellite imagery to locate invasive plant species in the southwestern portion of the National Park Service. Whaley was also able to attend NASA’s guest lecture series.

Her experiences at NASA and Tuskegee led her to pursue a Fulbright fellowship in Nigeria. For Whaley, exploring environmental effects in Nigerian communities meant repositioning the larger conversation of climate change to include more voices.

“Whenever we talk about climate change, it’s usually in the context of Western society. We leave so many people out,” Whaley says. “Nigeria has one of the greatest populations and seaports in the world. Our seaports help drive our global economy. If sea levels were to rise to a certain threshold, it would have significant impacts on the global economy.”

Throughout her interactions engaging with local Yoruba people, language, and culture, Whaley felt an overwhelming sense of home. She likened her experiences to those of a typical black southerner: communal support, family orientation, and neighbors who kept her best interests in mind.

“I saw many parallels to my life in Alabama and the experiences I had in Nigeria,” Whaley says. “It bridged a gap in my mind that I didn’t know was there. The similarities between us are joyous and historical. There was more comfort in traveling to Nigeria than to other countries I’ve been to.”

As Whaley is now pursuing her PhD in geoscience at the University of Arkansas, she sees her future career plans in a state of flexibility based on her own interests.

“I don’t know what exactly I want to be when I grow up,” Whaley says. “I do know that I want to travel. I want to be able to do something I am passionate about and that I have a deep sincerity for. That might mean I need to create this opportunity for myself and I am completely OK with that.”