An Interview With...
When we first interviewed you in 2006, you had been working for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena for less than one year. You talked about it being your dream job and mentioned that it was your first after graduating from Cal Poly with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. You wrote:
“I LOVE my job at JPL, where I get to design, build, and test robots. I get to use nearly everything I learned in school to do my job, and there are always new challenges involved where I continuously get to read and learn even more.”
At that time, how did you imagine your first ten years on the job would be?
To be honest, when I first started at JPL, I had no idea what to expect! I would never have imagined that within my first ten years, I would have the opportunity to travel to the Arctic Circle five times to participate in astrobiology field expeditions; work on so many unique robots like a hopping robot and cliff climbing rover; develop and test hardware for a rover that would land on Mars; prototype a device to capture a giant asteroid; and manage a research task and lead a team to develop ways to seal up and preserve samples for future Mars Sample Return missions.
How has your educational background and other experiences contributed to your current work?
Over the years, I have had to access knowledge and skills from nearly all my classes in school, including my classes in mechanical, electrical, materials, and computer engineering, as well as my classes in public speaking, technical writing, biology, chemistry, and even elementary education.
I found the speaking skills I picked up while being a DJ at my college radio station KCPR at Cal Poly useful for presentations. Leadership skills from being involved in student groups at the University of Florida were useful for leading research teams at JPL. Also, the fitness habits from being on the Cal Poly Triathlon Team have been useful for participating in physically demanding science expeditions.
Additionally, I’ve constantly needed to pick up new skills and learn new things throughout my career at JPL, which has contributed to my development as a better engineer and ability to work on increasingly more technically challenging and complex projects over the years.
In your previous interview, you also told us:
“When I was in 4th and 5th grade, I lived in Africa and went to an American International School, which had students from all over the world. My best friends were from England, Australia, Israel, Somalia, Germany, Korea, China, Colombia, and India. My family and I also took trips to Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Greece, Italy, and England when I was a kid. Seeing how people live in other countries really helped me appreciate the different cultures and lifestyles people have. It also showed me why it is so important for us, as Americans, who have so much wealth, to help out some of the countries that do not have as much as us because in the end, even though we may be in different parts of the world and speak different languages, we are all people, people who deserve the best.”
Your JPL job has allowed you to travel the world, testing robots in extreme conditions and teaching children about space and robotics. When you took the job, did you expect these sorts of adventures would be part of the package?
When I took my current job at JPL, I had no idea that I would have the opportunity to travel the world to test robots and teach children about space and robotics. I didn’t even know such things existed. Working at JPL has opened my eyes to a world still full of so many places to explore. It has opened the door to the international science community driven to collaborate and exchange ideas to further technology and pursue discovery. It has also given me the opportunity to share knowledge and experiences with people around the world to help inspire, educate, and bring them together to make this journey of space exploration a global endeavor.
How many languages can you communicate in?
I would say that I can get by in Spanish and have some basic conversations in Swahili (though I admit that I’d need to freshen up!). During my travels, I’ve had the opportunity to teach about robots and space exploration in Spanish while traveling in Spain, Costa Rica, and Honduras, as well as in Swahili while traveling in Tanzania. Additionally, I’ve been able to work alongside interpreters, who’ve translated presentations I’ve done in English into French and Arabic while traveling through Morocco, Korean while traveling through South Korea, and Tamil while traveling through southern India.
How does knowing even a minimal amount of words and phrases useful when traveling and getting to know the people?
Wherever I visit, I find that it’s useful to know a few words and phrases in the local language, such as: hello, goodbye, please, and thank you. Additionally, a nice smile, cheerful laugh, and friendly gesture can transcend any language barrier and forge a friendship with a stranger in any foreign land.
In 2006, you also wrote:
“When I was a kid, I found a lot of peoples' jobs interesting. I thought about being a paleontologist so I could look for fossils and dinosaur bones, an artist, an astronomer, a scientist, and an electrical engineer.”
How many of these things do you do today?
I love my job at JPL because it gives me a chance to integrate many different skills into what I do. Robotics is a multidisciplinary field that requires me to be a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, and a software engineer. Additionally, when we are approached to design a new robotic system, often times it is to perform a specific scientific objective. Designing a robot to search for life on Mars requires me to be an astronomer to understand what environments the robot must be capable of operating in; a biologist to understand what the robot must be capable to looking for; and a geologist to figure out what type of geologic environment must we go to that would most likely have produced or preserved the type of life we are looking for.
I’ve learned that just because you have a job in one field, it doesn’t mean you can’t pursue your other interests on the side. Outside of work as a roboticist, I’ve been able to pursue my interests of being a paleontologist. On the weekends I volunteer with the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Understanding how we search for past life on Earth (in this case dinosaurs) also helps me understand how to search for life on other planets like Mars.
How many years have you been competing in robotics and mentoring students in this field?
While at JPL, I (and other fellow engineers) have had the chance to mentor student at the local high school competing in the FIRST Robotics Competition. I’m amazed at the opportunities available for younger students to get involved in technology at an early age and have the chance to interact with and learn from real engineers. I think that friendly competition, as that found in programs like FIRST, are a great way to motivate students to get involved in STEM activities, cultivate team work, and inspire them to pursue careers as scientists and engineers.
I think it’s great that robotics and engineers are getting the chance to be in the spotlight through shows like Robot Wars and Robot Combat League. I look forward to catching the premier of BattleBots this month on ABC!
In 2006, you told readers of your Imagiverse interview:
“Being well-rounded will help you enjoy work and life to the fullest. When not working on robots, I love to draw portraits, train for marathons and triathlons, teach classes at local elementary schools, watch movies with my friends, play the harmonica, swing and salsa dance, read novels, and travel.”
How do you find time to do everything you want to do?
There are so many exciting things to try, learn about, and get involved in within the world! I have limited free time available after work, so I try to make the most efficient use of my time by limiting the time I spend watching TV and surfing the internet, and spending more time going out to try out new types of activities.
In addition to work and travel specifically related to your job or vacations, you have also volunteered for clinics, fire departments, orphanages, foster care organizations and food banks. Why is volunteerism important to you?
I feel very lucky to have a job that I enjoy and live in an environment that is both safe and supportive. However, not everyone has this fortune. Whenever I have the opportunity, I try to get out into the community to lend a hand where my skills can be of benefit, whether it be teaching children at a local school about science and engineering from my engineering background, providing medical care at a clinic from my EMT training, or just providing a set of hands to hand out food at a local food bank.
Looking back over the past decade and all that you have done, what has been the most fulfilling?
I’ve been given the chance to experience and learn a lot over the last 10 years while working at JPL. The most fulfilling part of it all has been the opportunity it has given me to work on some amazing projects and to share that experience with other people around the world.
What do you expect your life to be like ten years from now?
I have no idea what to expect during the next 10 years. However, I hope to continue to develop new robotic systems to help us explore space and to do my best to use that work to inspire the next generation of scientist and engineers!
- 21 June 2015
1 July 2015
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