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Welcome to the ARA's Stories Section!

Alumni Making an Impact
Features alumni who are making a difference for Rice on campus and in their communities.

Alumni in the News
Highlights stories that are gathered from the media through the hard work of the ARA's Alumni Recognition Committee, which recognizes and celebrates achievements of Rice alumni, faculty, students, staff and university friends by sending hand-written notes and emails. If you are interested in volunteering for the committee, contact Tara Quell, assistant director, alumni relations at 713-348-4694.

The Rice Stuff: alumni working in space share their stories

Rice’s astronauts, engineers, scientists and researchers are dedicated to tackling today’s astronomical challenges. We ask some of them to discuss their work and bring it down to Earth for us.

DR. CHARLES MATHERS ’02

Charles Mathers, M.D., M.P.H. (kinesiology, '02), an assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), currently serves as medical director for the UTMB/NASA Aerospace Medicine Center, and assistant chief medical officer for the Center for Polar Medical Operations.

Why did you choose space?

I grew up fascinated by aviation and space. During school I gravitated towards the life sciences, and after taking a nutrition course at Rice I decided to pursue a career in medicine. I could never quite figure out what kind of doctor I wanted to be. One day I was sitting in the library looking up careers in medicine and discovered the field of aerospace medicine. It combined my childhood love of aviation and space with my drive to become a physician. The lightbulb when on, and I’ve been hooked ever since. 

I’m over the moon about …

Commercial spaceflight! Several companies are vying to offer paying passengers the opportunity to fly into space. This is so exciting because, in the near future, anyone may have this experience. Companies are planning to build space hotels and even proposing colony ships to Mars! It is a very exciting time for the industry.

Stranger than fiction: what have you found in your work that truly surprised you, or went completely against what you expected?

UTMB Aerospace Medicine recently conducted a study where we spun laypersons in a centrifuge. These individuals had a history of chronic disease (e.g. heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.) and experienced G-forces similar to a real commercial spaceflight. Since NASA and the military typically only allow very healthy people to experience these G-forces, we wondered if our volunteers would have difficulty. To our surprise, they did very well — even people who had pacemakers and insulin pumps! It is exciting evidence that non-astronauts will likely be able to tolerate a commercial spaceflight experience.

JIMMY WU ’01

Jimmy Wu ’01 is chief engineer at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI). Housed at the BioScience Research Collaborative, the NSBRI brings together researchers from NASA, academia and industry to study health risks related to long-duration manned spaceflight and to develop medical technologies needed for extended missions. 

Why did you choose space?

I have always been fascinated with astronomy. The career in space chose me as I got an opportunity to work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center after graduating from Rice.

I’m over the moon about …

I'm over the moon about 3D printing. It is a potentially disruptive technology that could change how manned space flight missions are planned and resupplied, and it could change the lives of humans on Earth day to day.

Stranger than fiction: what have you found in your work that truly surprised you, or went completely against what you expected?

What I have found surprising is how hard it is for humans to thrive, not just survive, in space. It is relatively easy for us to just go. But to go, stay and thrive is immensely challenging. The human race has taken approximately 50,000 years to get to the point where we are thriving on Earth. We are trying to compress that level of human presence that took us so long on Earth to develop into what has been now just over 50 years of human space flight. It is very hard.

KRISTJAN STONE ’08

 Kristjan Stone ’08, who received his master’s and Ph.D. in physics from Rice, currently works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory studying superconducting detectors for satellite missions to explore never before seen galaxies.

Why did you choose space?

Space sort of chose me. While I was at Rice, I studied fundamental semi-conductor low temperature physics, and for my postdoctoral work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab I migrated over to superconducting microdevice detectors. It turns out that the specific, super-sensitive far-infrared detector I was working on could really only work beyond Earth’s atmosphere, which is where space comes in. Since then I have worked primarily on the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, an Icy World lander/sampler, and an X-ray source for the next Mars rover.

I’m over the moon about …

Probably one of the neatest things I’m working on is the Icy Worlds lander sampling system, which is basically a robot arm with a chainsaw on the end. It also goes by the acronym ELSA, which sounds like a “Frozen”/“Evil Dead” mashup. It’s also great to see how excited people are about the kinds of things I get to work on and how it will lead to new discoveries for all humanity.

Stranger than fiction: what have you found in your work that truly surprised you, or went completely against what you expected?

Actually, when I was a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology working on cutting edge detectors, a realization came to me that blew my mind. It all stems back to a mission by the name of Spitzer, which was the first real attempt at putting an infrared detector on a satellite. They pointed the satellite out into the blackness of space in an area that was known not to hold any stars. It covered about the size of your thumbnail when you stretch out your arm. The resulting image that came back was completely filled with galaxies that we had never seen before or even knew existed.

Fast forward 10 years from that discovery and consider that the detector I am working on is 1000x more sensitive than anything else in the far infrared region. With this new detector in operation, we will be able to see these dust-shrouded galaxies and the resulting red shift as they move away from us. This should result in us being able to calculate their age at a theoretical time of around ~12.5 billion years in the past as the universe was forming.

What blows me away is that in such a short time, we went from knowing about a lot of visible galaxies, to having all the space between those galaxies filled with more galaxies, and in the near future being able to look back farther than ever before and witness those galaxies form.

ADAM BAKER ’94

Adam Baker ’94 has built an impressive 22-year career at NASA, and is currently serving as branch manager for International Space Station (ISS) vehicle integrated performance at the Johnson Space Center.

Why did you choose space?

Truth be told, when I first started at NASA, I was just looking for an engineering job! However, the thrill of exploration, the challenges of systems engineering and some amazing friendships I developed have kept me there.

I’m over the moon about …

Finding ways to efficiently use the International Space Station! It's what I get paid to do every day. For example, I'm proud to say that we saved tons of propellant (totaling many millions of dollars) by utilizing control moment gyroscopes instead of thrusters. Finding a solution wasn't easy, requiring a delicate balance between structural loads, contamination, safety constraints and gyroscope capabilities!

Stranger than fiction: what have you found in your work that truly surprised you, or went completely against what you expected?

I never would have imagined that I would work with engineers from all over the planet! I was fortunate enough to enjoy the expat life in Moscow, Russia, for a few years. Who knew that borscht could be so good?

KATHRYN POWELL ’13

Kathryn Powell ’13 earned her bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from Rice, and is now in her fourth year of a Ph.D. program in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, where she studies the Martian geologic record using orbital remote sensing. Powell is also a member of the Opportunity rover science team.

Why did you choose space?

I’ve always been fascinated by the exploration aspect of space. I really got hooked during my first job in planetary science, which was an internship at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. I started working a few weeks before the MESSENGER spacecraft made a flyby of Mercury. Overnight, we had images of an entire hemisphere of the planet that we had never seen. Before that experience, I saw the solar system as something we understood pretty well, but there's so much out there to explore still. I really wanted to be a part of that.

I’m over the moon about …

For my research, I do a lot of remote sensing; specifically, I work with hyperspectral images from a satellite orbiting Mars to identify minerals on the surface. Though we can get a lot of information from remote observations and think we adequately understand a spot on the planet from orbit, when we get to send a rover we’re given a totally new perspective. Each time we've landed on a new location on Mars, it has surprised us. It’s very different studying a location at the scale of individual rocks and outcrops than from 300 kilometers up! I feel fortunate to work at the junction of orbital and landed observations and get to experience both approaches.

Stranger than fiction: what have you found in your work that truly surprised you, or went completely against what you expected?

We had this fairly simple paradigm for Martian geologic history that was developed after observations by some of the earliest mineralogical instruments that gathered data. It went something like this: early on, Mars had a lot of water, relatively speaking, and that was the most favorable time for any potential life. Then, Mars started to dry out, and the water that was left was very acidic. Eventually, we wound up with the cold, dry Mars we have today. But, we’re finding with more study and higher resolution measurements that there really is a lot of variability in what’s happened in the geologic record depending on where you look on the planet — and we don’t have accurate age dating for any of these events. There’s also evidence for flowing water today that’s being heavily discussed in the community. So, Martian history turned out to be a more complicated picture than we thought at first.

FERNANDO BARAJAS ’16

United States Air Force 2nd Lieutenant Fernando Barajas ’16 is actively working towards his dream of, one day, earning his wings to fly in space as a full-fledged astronaut.

Why did you choose space?

Besides the amazing view of having an office in space, my biggest drive for wanting to become an astronaut is the sheer thrill and excitement that comes from venturing into unknown, dangerous environments. I am propelled by the idea that the unknown is waiting to be discovered. When I think about space, I think about future generations and the possibilities that a spacefaring civilization might have. If I could play even a small role in such an endeavor, it is worth working towards.

I’m over the moon about …

Just how many other people share the same passion, enthusiasm and wonder of space! Daunting goals seem much more possible to achieve when millions of people are working together. I relish the fact that if, perhaps, I do not fulfill the astronaut role I have set out for myself, others will and I will proudly propel them, pun intended, into the stars. 

Stranger than fiction: what have you found in your work that truly surprised you, or went completely against what you expected?

Growing up and learning about Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus, Hubble, or learning about the Moon landings, I took for granted their brilliance. I have realized just how much effort and time it has taken humanity to reach the point we are at today, and how much more will be demanded from us moving forward. Space is unforgivably vast, time is ever moving and gravity is always tugging at our feet. 

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