Remembering Dr. Barry Blumberg

NASA’s biggest asset is its amazing people, and one of the best parts of working at NASA is the people you meet in the course of your job.  Some are just awe-inspiring to meet (Buzz Aldrin), and others you get to work with closely or even have become your mentor.  When someone finds out that I work for NASA, I often talk about the amazing people I work with just as much I do about the neat stuff that NASA does.

I had the extreme honor of knowing, working with, and being mentored by Dr. Baruch Blumberg, who sadly passed away earlier this month.  Known as ‘Barry’ to his friends, including the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI) where I work, he had a rare combination of being extremely intelligent and extremely wise at the same time.

Obituaries for Dr. Barry Blumberg abound on the internet, drawing attention to his amazing work with Hepatitis B, which has saved millions of lives.   They also mention his work with NASA, such as his leadership in the then burgeoning field of astrobiology.  Here I share some personal notes about Barry in both in the realm of intellectualism and humanity.  Overall, nothing in life was ‘work’ to him:  everyday was filled with passion for science, people, and the dynamics of the world around him.

Barry’s intellectual leadership was visible to anyone who interacted with him.  He was a constant learner who used every opportunity to interact with someone as a learning opportunity.  Arguably one of the smartest humans on the planet, Barry would ask so many questions and have a sense of wonder about it all, no matter who you were or what education level you had.  One of the most noticeable attributes to Barry was his extreme humility, all the more noticeable considering his intellectual feats.  One of the things he said that I shall always remember was, “You know, I’ve been an amateur at most things at life”.  At 72 he embarked on a new career step, leading the NASA Astrobiology Institute.  For him, it was something new and exciting that would bring him great joy.  To the science community, it was an amazing asset to have his brilliance influence a new discipline.
Dr. Baruch Blumberg
“…I’ve been an amateur at most things in life.”

Barry Blumberg taught me so much about scientific thinking.  One of his passions was Citizen Science, with one of his favorites being Moon Zoo, which he worked with via the NLSI.  He emphasized the importance of first observing and coming up with new ideas, and really thinking about things before delving into the other parts of the scientific process.  Amateurs particularly had a role in this, he pointed out.

Many have referred to Barry’s wisdom and humanity as well.  I will always consider myself amazingly lucky to get to know him and be mentored by him.  One of his first pieces of professional advice followed a meeting I organized and prepared for, but hesitated at taking the reigns of.  Barry said that the work I prepared was really good and that I should lead the meeting.  Even more memorable is that he said I had it in me.  Let me tell you, when a Nobel Laureate says something to you, particularly that they believe in you, you remember it!

Barry’s wisdom of life was also visible.  One of the first longer conversations I had with him was at a dinner party where he told me about seeing the film Last Chance Harvey.  He ended up telling me most of the plot but I didn’t care because he was so thoughtful in sharing the human dynamics of the film.  He really understood people.  He saw good and potential in everyone, and wasn’t afraid to share that.  He never spoke a word against anyone.  Barry inspired people to be the person he saw in them, and to better themselves each day and live up to one’s full potential.   One of Barry’s lasting influences on my life was his encouragement of me to return to graduate school for my scientific education.  He never pushed, just gently encouraged.  He supported my application for the Ames Graduate Co-op Program, from which I received an acceptance letter two days after Barry’s passing.

NASA (and the world) has lost an amazing asset.  The people who personally knew Barry have lost a wonderful friend. I will greatly miss the little wisdoms of life he sprinkled about, and wish I could have asked him so many more questions.  Your work and your heart will always be with us, Barry!

My next step in life!

I have two wonderful pieces of news to share:  First, I am returning to graduate school, and second, I have been accepted into the NASA Ames Graduate Co-op Program!

On grad school

Two weeks ago I returned to the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) to complete my Ph.D. in Earth & Planetary Sciences.  It is something I have thought about for some time, and with my experiences the last few years and some fantastic mentors, I realized that the time is now.  No better time to work towards your dreams than right now!

My interest in completing the Ph.D. includes several factors.  First, my wonderful work experiences in the last few years made me realize how much I miss actually doing science and that I really to be where the action is.  Second, I have had a lot of fun the past two years, with one highlight being international science partnerships.  I wondered if getting a Ph.D. would limit the scope of what I want to do, but one of my wonderful bosses pointed out that the Ph.D. would only open more doors in this and other realms, and allow me to do these kinds of things at a more impactful level.  Third, completing the Ph.D. will allow me to do things not possible with a Ph.D. at all, particularly conducting my own research and contributing towards science missions that travel to other worlds.  Finally, I originally went to graduate school to get my Ph.D. (for a couple of reasons just described), and left post-qualifying exam to explore other things, obtaining my Masters in the process.  However, I always had a sense of incompletion.  The Ph.D. is definitely something that would still prove invaluable to me, and the sense of completion is something I eagerly anticipate and that drives me to move forward.

My Ph.D. thesis will be studying triggers of an active hydrologic cycle on Mars, particularly in the past, using a Mars General Circulation Model (a 3D climate model).  At UCSC my advisor is Erik Asphaug, who with every conversation makes me think of entirely new concepts and lets the scientific imagination soar.  My NASA Ames advisor is Anthony Colaprete, who is remarkably good at balancing guidance and independence as a mentor.  I am very thankful to be working with both of them!

On the Ames Graduate Co-op Program

I feel very honored to have been selected for the NASA Ames Graduate Co-op program.  This work-study program is unique is that it offers both research and leadership experiences.  I am excited to get to know the other students in the program and strive to realize this opportunity to the fullest extent possible.  I have been in love with Ames for years, and look forward to the next evolution of my time here.

As part of the program, I will work half of my time at NASA Ames.  My current schedule is to be at UCSC on Tuesdays and Fridays, and at NASA Ames the rest of the week.  I will continue living in the South Bay, but look forward to spending more time in Santa Cruz.  I am learning to really appreciate Santa Cruz with fresh eyes!

Final Thoughts…

As I brush up on the latest Mars research and get back into the grad student mentality, I give thanks for many things.  In particular I want to thank my wonderful mentors, including many at my current workplace.  In particular I want to call out Barry Blumberg, an amazing person who passed away last week.  I was lucky to have known such an absolutely brilliant person, and so thankful for the greatest gift from him:  having him believe in me.  I will miss you Barry!

First Day back at school!

Today was my first day back at UC Santa Cruz! I will elaborate more on my returning later, but just a quick note that it was great to be back and I realized with fresh eyes what a great place Santa Cruz is.

The day included meeting with an amazing Mars scientist about my project, meeting old lab mates, meeting new lab mates and discussing computing resources (funner than it sounds), getting logistical stuff set up like my ID card, and having to walk through the lovely campus on a spring day to do all this.

More coming soon…

Why I am Leaving Twitter

This is a pretty simple, low-key decision for me, but for many in today’s digerati culture, it would be an unthinkable action.  It comes down to whether something benefits my life enough to do it, and whether any negatives outweigh the benefits.

I have decided to leave my twitter account.  My last tweet will be tomorrow, February 16, 2011, at 6 PM Pacific.

DISCLAIMER: While I make some statements about the uses of twitter, I am NOT saying everyone who “uses it abuses it”.  In my own life, I have found I am sensitive to some of the particular topics I highlight below.  So please don’t feel judged 🙂

I originally began tweeting in 2007, well before having a twitter account became the norm.  It arose from a pretty cool job I had with NASA (project link currently down), connecting NASA with the vibrant Silicon Valley.  I was in San Francisco meeting with people at a co-working space to discuss co-working and other current work trends.  Twitter came up, and my colleagues and I had not really heard of it so gave it a whirl.

Twitter was quickly picked up in the space community, and eventually lead to a large social media presence by NASA that has been deemed the best in the federal government.  There are tons of space geeks, including many bonafied NASA workers, who are now on twitter, many of them identifying as ‘Space Tweeps’, for which a shout out to @flyingjenny is due!  Twitter has evolved into the often primary source where I find out about space news.  It is timelier than other news notifications, provides an opportunity to get perspectives on the latest space issues, and often links to quality primary sources I would not have otherwise checked.  Plus, it is a great community builder in the oft divided space community, where centers seem to fight for funds and the geographical and cultural areas span a wide expanse.  I have personally developed some neat connections via twitter that have leapt into real life.  It is also a great way to access a community of knowledge that is better than google, and a fun way to see who might want to join for a drink on a Friday night 🙂  These are some of the reasons I have hesitated to quit twitter for so long.

So why am I quitting? One day after I tweeted something, I sat back and thought, “What was my intention in tweeting that?”

1)  More often than not, I see how Twitter is used as another extension of an online persona that may or not be true to the real life person.  Similar to reunion update pages and LinkedIn, Twitter often only shows the best of one’s life.  But more importantly, beyond that, people start believing in this artificial ego created for oneself.  Having an image.  Wanting to impress strangers.  Seeming witting.  Showing off clever and offbeat interests.  I have seen firsthand how the difference between this image and real life can be fruitless and frustrating.

2) More importantly, I question why I am doing these things.  Why do I care to share some of the things I do?  Clearly much of the point of tweeting is interaction with others, which by default places importance on those others.  Also, many times on Twitter, it is all about keeping up with the Jones.  Not interested.  Also, why do I check certain twitter accounts?  Sure, some are super informative and fun, but often times it is to get a glimpse at someone’s life, and aren’t there better ways to do that than check the twitter stream?

3) Finally:  140 characters.  Oh, the novel concept.  Some balk at the number and say how nothing valuable can be conveyed in that.  I know that lots of interesting data can successfully be conveyed on twitter– news, your friend’s movie review, knowing a friend is having a bad day, being up on the latest conference registration deadline.  But many times, tweeting is like this voice reaching out to connect with someone in the real world… and we as a community are trying to do this in 140 characters?!  Overall, this does not seem to be the ideal way for human relationships to be moderated by (and yes, it does do that more than some think).

Bottom line: A this point, Twitter is just not an added something that brings joy to my life.

Sure, I could just use twitter for professional or more general informative uses, but I can also spend that time networking in person, reading a book, reading an in-depth article, or calling a friend.

Twitter doesn’t take much time, and who am I to advocate my position to others?  While I have been a strong advocate of the benefits of twitter (my boss is now interested so he can get the latest roasts from his favorite coffee house!), I have never been one to say “OMG you HAVE to do this”.  I definitely see tons of great things about twitter and am glad for the near 4 years I have spent on it, but it has run its course in my life….(sound the violins)

I will still be on (gasp!) Facebook, since it connects me to the largest number of people that I already know.  Though it is not open like twitter, thus will not be quite the same place to meet new people, it will allow me to be more “in the moment” (as much as any technology can!), and focus what and who are already in my life, not on “getting more” and “being better” online.

For something that is only 140 characters, this sure is a long blog post!

If you know me on twitter and want to stay in touch, write me a message here on this post, dm me, or friend me on Facebook.  I also plan to update my blog more recently, which I share on Facebook and other ways.

Sayonara, Twitter!

Yours truly,

@iamjem