Danielle Sonobe, UCLA grad and NASA DEVELOP team member
Danielle Sonobe, 2023 UCLA grad and NASA DEVELOP team member.


Alumni Spotlight — From UCLA to NASA, Danielle Sonobe ’23

energy & technology, law & policy, nature & conservation

“Try everything, put yourself out there and go for it. You might surprise yourself with who you are and what you’re able to accomplish, so embrace every challenge.”

Sonobe holding her graduation cap and gown in UCLA’s Dickson Plaza

Navigating the environmental sector after graduation requires more than just technical expertise — it takes adaptability, resilience and a foundation of meaningful experiences. As the first person in her family to graduate college and a member of NASA’s DEVELOP Program, which leverages Earth observation data to tackle environmental challenges, UCLA IoES alumna Danielle Sonobe is no stranger to these qualities. 

Her journey from undergraduate student to NASA team member underscores the power of a comprehensive college experience. Graduating in 2023 with a B.S. in Environmental Science, a minor in Geospatial Information Systems & Technologies and a concentration in Earth & Environmental Science, Sonobe said UCLA prepared her for the professional world and provided valuable lessons. 

Transferring to UCLA from Las Positas College, Sonobe felt joy, accomplishment and appreciation for her family’s unwavering support, along with uncertainty as a first-generation college student. “Nobody, even me, really knew what I was getting into. It was a lot of figuring things out along the way,” she said. 

Sonobe credits UCLA IoES for providing a strong foundation for her post-college endeavors. “Taking my first remote sensing classes gave me hands-on experience and familiarity with applying technical skills,” she noted, emphasizing that the course curriculum, experienced faculty and diverse research opportunities solidified her passion for environmental science. “It’s important to have a deep desire to help communities and make a meaningful impact on the world.” 

Professor Coffey’s geology students at the Grand Canyon.

Her undergraduate experience was enriched by supportive mentorship of influential professors such as Noah Garrison and Travis Longcore. Their guidance was important to her personal and professional growth, she said. Danielle also cherishes a geology course she took from Kevin Coffey. One of her favorite UCLA experiences, it included excursions to the Valley of Fire, Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon.  

The senior practicum prepared her for collaborative and long-term research at NASA DEVELOP, Sonobe said. Her team analyzed smartphone data to assess park usage during extreme heat events while collaborating with the L.A. County’s Department of Public Health, Chief Sustainability Office and Department of Parks & Recreation. “Pursuing a year-long project and building from the ground up was something I had never done before,” Sonobe reflects. “It was incredibly impactful and rewarding.” 

Accepted into NASA’s DEVELOP Program for the Spring 2024 term, Sonobe’s role blends technical expertise with collaborative research. Her team assesses thermal stress impacts on coastal Hawaiian fishponds (loko i’a) using NASA Earth observations — in collaboration with science advisors at JPL, Hawaiian nonprofit Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.   

Sonobe emphasized the importance of interpersonal skills and teamwork, alongside technical prowess. “Apart from learning hard skills like coding, developing soft skills, building rapport with advisors and becoming comfortable in a professional setting has been so important.” This practical workplace experience has solidified her decision to pursue graduate school, influenced by interactions with like-minded individuals and advisors at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

Danielle offers advice to first-generation and transfer students on similar paths: “Try everything, put yourself out there and go for it. You might surprise yourself with who you are and what you’re able to accomplish, so embrace every challenge.” She also noted the importance of learning from every job or experience, regardless of outcome. “You learn what you don’t like and what truly resonates with you, eventually leading you to realize, ‘This is what I’m meant to do.'”