Where are you from?
I lived in Toledo, Ohio and neighboring Sylvania until I left for my undergraduate education at Princeton University in New Jersey. After four years there, I moved to Boulder, Colorado for my graduate work.
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
One evening, when I was four years old, I was outside with my parents, and I saw a meteor. Already a logical youngster, I concluded it was a witch streaking across the sky, and I was terrified -- I was quite afraid of witches at that age. When my parents told me that it was something from space burning up in the atmosphere, I was captivated -- I have been fascinated with space and science ever since.
My interest in space and science only grew stronger as I grew older, and I followed all aspects of space exploration as closely as I could while pursuing my education.
How did you end up working in the space program?
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to work for NASA -- really the only organization I ever dreamed of working for. I actually began writing to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and other NASA facilities, as well as other space agencies and scientific institutions around the world, when I was only nine years old. I received many nice responses over the years, including answers to my many questions, as well as brochures, articles, pictures, posters, and other items. I have accumulated quite a collection of information and memorabilia from the exploration of space.
My interest in space and science only grew stronger as I grew older, and I followed all aspects of space exploration as closely as I could while pursuing my education. My aspiration of being a part of NASA never wavered.
After I earned my Ph.D. in physics at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics in Boulder, NASA was still the only place I wanted to work. I continued as a postdoctoral researcher, and I applied to several NASA centers. I was thrilled to accept one of the offers I had from JPL, and I have been here ever since.
Who inspired you?
I have been inspired by a great many scientists throughout history -- mostly physicists and astronomers, as well as scientists in other fields. I love learning about their work and their creativity, diligence and persistence. There are far too many to name all that have inspired me, but if I had to choose just one I would pick the brilliant Paul Dirac. Among his extraordinary accomplishments was predicting the existence of antimatter in 1928. It was discovered only four years later by Carl Anderson. The power of science itself inspires me!
I have also been energized by the people in the US and elsewhere who accomplished human and robotic space missions from the very beginning of space exploration. These missions enthralled me when I was younger: I only knew the names of a few individuals who were a part of these wonderful missions, but I was also well aware that it took a great many talented and dedicated men and women to achieve such marvelous feats.
What is a mission manager or chief engineer?
I am fortunate enough to be involved in all the technical aspects of the operation of the Dawn mission to dwarf planet Ceres. I get to marvel at the big picture and to delve into the fascinating details. In brief, I am responsible for ensuring all the different pieces of this complex undertaking fit together so we can accomplish ambitious scientific objectives.
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
Working for NASA has been like a dream come true for me, and there have been many wonderful moments and experiences I will treasure for the rest of my life.
One outstanding memory occurred on 22 September 2001 and involves the Deep Space 1 mission.
I started working on DS1 in 1995, when a few colleagues and I developed the initial concept for the mission. Its objective was to test ion propulsion (which I first heard of on Star Trek), artificial intelligence and other exotic technologies on an operational interplanetary mission so that they could be used on subsequent missions.
We launched DS1 in 1998, and completed its very productive primary mission in 1999. However, we still had a healthy, capable spacecraft out there in the solar system. So, NASA Headquarters approved an extended mission devoted to exploring a comet.
Shortly thereafter, a component we had considered absolutely indispensable failed. By all rights that should have been fatal for the spacecraft, and the mission should have ended and rested on its laurels.
In the best spirit of NASA's remarkable history of overcoming the most daunting challenges, my team and I accomplished one of the most ambitious deep space rescue missions ever attempted. It was a very, very difficult seven months, but by June of 2000 the ship was sailing smoothly enough to resume its pursuit of the comet. We used the ion propulsion system and some of the other advanced technologies to guide this aged and wounded bird to a spectacular encounter with comet Borrelly 11 days after 9/11. While the world's attention was focused elsewhere, the spacecraft performed its daring mission flawlessly. DS1 provided NASA with its first close-up views and other precious data from a comet, exceeding our wildest hopes for success.
I'm usually pretty articulate, but it seemed that all I could say for several hours after the best picture came up on our screens in mission control was "I just can't believe how incredibly cool this is."
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
Everyone's career path is going to be different, because everyone is different and everyone's circumstances are different. So the first advice I would offer is to do the best you can with your own abilities and limitations, as well as your own opportunities and constraints. Forge your own course in life. Build on your strengths, and don't wait for someone else to give you a lucky break. Make your own luck -- work hard and take responsibility for your own success.
I'm sure everyone knows all the standard advice about doing well in school, and it's both valid and important, but I don't have anything new to say about that.
What do you do for fun?
My job is fun. After all, my favorite hobby for my whole life has been learning about space exploration and the many branches of science. (Many fields interest me. A few of them are particle physics, cosmology and evolutionary biology.) I'm very fortunate that I get to make my living doing what I love so much. I do devote a great deal of my personal time to it as well. I also like to share the rewards of science and the excitement and the wonder of interplanetary adventures by giving public presentations and writing a blog, which provides an inside view of a real deep-space mission (see link further below).
Beside this, I also greatly enjoy international folk dancing, nature photography (especially insects and flowers), hiking, and other outdoor activities.
If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
If you are interested in a field, pursue it. You get as much out of life as you put into it. So if you really enjoy a topic, indulge yourself, fuel your passions, work hard, and don't forget to recognize how fortunate you are to be engaged in something so gratifying. One reason I find my work so rewarding is that I take the time to step back and appreciate what a marvelous adventure I am involved in.
We live in a culture that, to a large extent, does not understand what science is or how it works. So in addition to your technical work, if you have or can develop the needed skills, help the public understand science. Everyone will benefit if you can convey your knowledge to a broader audience.
I knew from the time I was in elementary school that I wanted to get a Ph.D. in physics. I loved every physics and math class I took in school, but I also considered it important to get a broad education. So when I was an undergraduate, I took many courses in different subjects in the humanities as well. I think there is great value in breadth as well as depth.