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Going above and beyond

Posted 10:43 a.m. Friday, March 22, 2024

Niti Mishra is geographic information scientist who specializes in applications of drones for environmental monitoring. He is the 2024 Prairie Springs Environmental Leadership Award winner.

Prairie Springs Environmental Leadership Award-winning professor leads drone research in the Driftless

High above the wetlands and prairies of the Coulee Region, drones soar, meticulously mapping invasive plant species and monitoring changes in the river system's evolution. Below, Associate Professor Niti Mishra and his team of undergraduate students carefully maneuver these robots, gathering environmental data destined for local conservation organizations. 

So the story has gone for the last decade since the geography professor started working on campus.  

Mishra has mentored 12 students, providing data for countless environmental causes. Their efforts were recognized in 2019 when Mishra's team received the prestigious "Conservation Project of the Year" award from the La Crosse County Conservation Alliance for their innovative use of drone imagery in detecting invasive aquatic plants. 

Now, Mishra receives UWL’s Prairie Springs Environmental Leadership Award. This honor, bestowed annually upon one student and one faculty member, celebrates individuals who demonstrate exceptional dedication to environmental action within the community, inspiring others to follow suit.  

“The judges were impressed by the impact that Niti’s work has had on environmental issues locally and across the globe,” says Andrew Ericson, UWL Sustainability Program Manager. “Niti also stood out for his exemplary commitment to engaging students in research. One judge called these student research opportunities ‘life-changing’ for the students.” 

Through collaborations with entities such as the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, Brice Prairie Conservation Association, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, students have gained invaluable firsthand experience. Experiential learning and research-based education enhances student quality of learning while preparing them for professional careers, says Mishra. Many of his mentees have secured internships and full-time positions in federal, state, and private sectors, while others have pursued advanced degrees in fields ranging from geography to biology and archaeology. 

“By involving undergraduate students in my research and partnering with local conservation organizations, I have been able to not only motivate students to work on real world environmental monitoring and management issues, but also provide a platform to these organizations to connect with UWL and better serve communities,” says Mishra. 

Mishra's latest research, funded by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, focuses on preserving vital trout habitats in the driftless area. By integrating field data with drone and satellite imagery, Mishra's team has identified misclassified warmwater streams in Northern Iowa, potentially safeguarding up to 150 kilometers of streams as coldwater habitats. These findings will inform recommendations by the Iowa DNR, enhancing the protection and conservation of coldwater ecosystems. 

Monitoring climate change impacts abroad 

When he is not working on environmental conservation in the driftless area, Mishra takes his students abroad to Nepal’s Himalayas where they investigate the impact of changing climate patterns on treeline vegetation and glaciers. So far six students have traveled with him to Nepal, and he has plans to grow that number. He recently developed a faculty-led study abroad program, “Adventure, Sustainability & Ecological Issues in Nepal,” where he will be leading with 12 students in summer 2024

“Involving students is fulfilling as I get to witness development in their critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills,” says Mishra. “Whether we are in the GIS lab analyzing satellite imagery for detecting trout habitat or collecting drone imagery on a glacier in Nepal or the wetlands of the Mississippi, students’ enthusiasm and curiosity brings fresh perspectives prompts me to see the research from new angles.” 

Participation in Mishra's initiatives equips students with cutting-edge techniques for data collection and analysis, exposes them to diverse cultures, and allows them to contribute to peer-reviewed research publications. 

Developing an eye for the environmental causes 

Growing up in India, Mishra witnessed firsthand environmental challenges faced by developing countries. Subsequent experiences in Southern Africa, Nepal, Thailand, and the mid-western US, enabled him to see that while the nature and scale of environmental problems may vary, they ultimately impact the well-being of people and ecosystems worldwide.  

“Marginalized communities often bear the brunt of environmental degradation and lack access to resources and opportunities,” he says. “Sustainability is a shared endeavor that requires collective action at local, national, and global levels.” 

Mishra hopes by engaging students in research and improving environmental literacy among this younger generation, he is helping to contribute to a more sustainable and equitable future. 

He recently introduced a new course "Environmental Applications of Drones," empowering students to devise environmental projects within the driftless area. Supported by Dean's Distinguished Fellowships and undergraduate research and creativity grants, these projects represent a fusion of academic rigor and practical conservation efforts. 

“I feel grateful for the partnerships and collaborations that have enabled me to positively impact the environment. This award reflects the support and collaboration within the UWL and with the community,” says Mishra. “There is still much work to be done and it inspires me to remain committed to exploring new avenues and innovating ideas and projects that brings UWL, local/state agencies and the community together.” 

About the award 

Recipients are selected by the Prairie Springs Endowment Fund Advisory Subcommittee, which considers the impact, scope and sustainability of each candidate’s accomplishments. Each winner receives $1,000. 

The awards are funded through the endowment fund created by Prairie Springs: The Paul Fleckenstein Trust. The fund also supports undergraduate student research, CSH Dean’s Distinguished Fellowships and internship opportunities that focus on environmental education, conservation and wildlife habitat protection. 


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