Alice speaking at the National Ocean Exploration Forum. Credit: Shanni Jin for The Qualcomm Institute /UC San Diego

Where are you from?

I’m from Redondo Beach, California.

What first sparked your interest in space and science?

I come from a line of science professors, so interest in science, especially life science, came naturally to me. My mother is an entomologist and when I was a child, we would often go on camping trips, observe wildlife and collect insects. I feel fortunate to work at JPL because everything we do is an effort to expand humankind’s knowledge about the universe. The wonder I had as a child for understanding the natural world around me still motivates me today. As a child, I’d be with my family in the forest, taking pictures of birds with my disposable camera. Now, I get to work on a team that will send a robotic emissary to space and take pictures of Europa.

How did you end up working in the space program?

During graduate school, I worked in a lab called the Center for Human Factors in Advanced Aeronautics Technologies (CHAAT). CHAAT is a NASA University research center that conducts research on air traffic controller workload and situation awareness. A JPLer came to visit our lab and notified us of a summer research internship. At the time, I thought the chances of me landing an internship at JPL were slim, but I was encouraged by a friend to apply anyway. That single nudge of encouragement is what made me gather the courage to apply and consequently changed my life. I was beyond excited when I received the acceptance email.

Alice using OnSight
Alice using OnSight.

Tell us about your job. What do you do?

Like most systems engineers, I am a wearer of many hats. My responsibilities change with the needs of the mission at the time. In the context of software, this ultimately means thinking about the users. I’m passionate about ensuring that our science planning software is intuitive for users and well architected. Software is the mechanism by which we communicate with each other and the spacecraft. What do we want that communication to look like? How are we going to define the behaviors of the spacecraft, in software? How will scientists communicate what observation should be taken at what time, using software? Much of this boils down to building an architecture that supports the operations concept. The goal is to come up with the best solution that considers all factors.

Because we are in the earlier stage of the mission, my role is focused on knowledge gathering and requirements, but it will evolve with the mission. My typical day usually includes listening to/participating in discussions, gathering data, or talking to people to understand constraints, needs, goals and objectives. My team and I work to make sure that we understand the system enough to know what to build before a single line of code is written.

Alice with her cat

What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?

Aside from Europa Clipper, the only project I’ve worked on—and am still part of—is OnSight, a Mars terrain visualization application that runs on the HoloLens. In my role as user experience researcher, I’ve gotten to know many Mars scientists and their work, how they plan a day on Mars and how they analyze the data when it comes back. By knowing their work and priorities, I can represent their interest in development decisions. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience to be so close to the science, get to know the people and learn some geology along the way.

My favorite part of this project is the opportunity to organize and host a series of science meetings called “Meet on Mars,” where Curiosity mission scientists around the world with OnSight can put on their HoloLenses and “meet” virtually on Mars and discuss whatever the most pressing science question is at the time.

I’ve also had the good fortune to do talks and demos of OnSight at several events. Many of these were outreach events designed to inspire young girls to get into STEM fields, but they were just as inspirational to me!

What has been your biggest professional challenge and how did you overcome it?

Because I come from experimental psychology, I have a non-traditional background for a systems engineer. But I’ve found that a lot of the skills needed to be a good experimental psychologist (statistics, experimental design, communication, etc.) are also needed for systems engineering. On top of that, my supervisor and colleagues at JPL have been nothing but supportive of me taking classes to hone my skills and areas of knowledge I want to improve. A diversity of perspectives makes us stronger. While I believe there’s nothing more important than education, finishing your degree is only the beginning. Never stop learning.

Who inspires you?

My mother. She’s a scientist, an independent woman and the best role model a girl could ask for.

Alice and her mom
Alice and her mom.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?

I have three:
1) Be empathetic.

2) Remember that the desire to learn and improve is your greatest asset. Hold on to it and let it be your motivation to learn new skills.

3) Don’t be discouraged by failure—that’s part of the learning process.

What are some fun facts about yourself or something people might not know about you?

I enjoy learning languages! I am currently learning Mandarin and improving my French.

What is your favorite space image and why?

While not the most visually stunning, the iconic “pale blue dot” image moves me every time I see it. It was “the first portrait of the solar system,” a gift from Voyager 1. It makes me feel like we have so much to learn, so much to see out there—and that we should cherish each other and our planet more. Moreover, it reminds me of Carl Sagan, who was a great inspiration to me and a gift to the world.