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!

“When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”

“In the pursuit of Knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Way,
every day something is dropped.

Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.”

Lao Tzu (c.604 – 531 B.C.)


I have been doing a lot of self-reflection lately, trying to get back to my old self, even back to my 20s– updated of course :).  I am extremely organized and on top of things, making plans… but I think I need to just stop and let whatever happens… happen, and (gasp) stop trying to have fun, because you really shouldn’t have to be trying ;).  A couple of weekends ago I did just that and randomly went to San Jose, grabbed a yummy lunch and pastry, then saw the Leo Villareal exhibit (amazing!), and made a little LED art project while there.  It was so funny that this was so amazingly fun when I have a packed social schedule and do tons of stuff that sound super awesome and interesting, but so often I do not feel stimulated and alive doing it!

Anyhoo, here is to practicing the Way…

Why I love airports

This post will be quick– boarding a flight to DC in a few minutes!  I am reminded sometimes of how my life does (and sometimes does not) live up to my childhood visions of a glamourous adulthood.  I envisioned my grown-up self traveling internationally for business, and here I am:  San Francisco, to Washington D.C., to Rome, to Prague.  I must confess, it does not feel as exciting as it sounds– this is definitely a big, long trip for work!  But I still can be romanced by it all.

Flying to me continues to be romantic, and not solely in the love sense of the world.  More of that sense of time and place.  Airports are amazing to me because they have people of all types, hometowns, and destinations, all crossing paths in their exciting adventures.  There is a sense of destiny uniting these people to intersect.

Okay, I have to board soon, but I would love to hear others thoughts on the romance of travel.  Yes, airport security, mediocre food, and other silly things get in the way, but really:  what is more exciting than traveling on the road of life?  🙂

Atlas Shrugged (and a bit of Office Space)

I finally finished reading Ayn Rand‘s beloved (or loathed) masterpiece Atlas Shrugged. I began reading the book with a bit of skepticism (for some it is the Bible, and I tend to be on the cynical side for novels with so grandiose a significance placed on them), and it took me more than a while to get into it; the first 300 pages took many months because I just was not engaged with the story, nor more importantly, the characters. But I stuck it out, and in the end found the book to be very conversation worthy. I do not agree with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy in whole, but her work did get me asking many good questions about my life, my work, and my choices and their related motivations.

In a wide world of conversation topics centered around Atlas Shrugged, I focus this entry on a particular thought:

To whom do you relate to in the novel, Atlas Shrugged?

Before I read the end, I related to Eddie Willers…. The hard working, honest, behind-the-shadows guy who definitely wanted more (his desire) and was not necessarily content with things but was satisfied with how he carried out his life–with integrity. The book begins and ends with Eddie Willers prominently featured, and his is perhaps one of the most heart wrenching (even if unclear) endings in the book. It’s been said he is the “common man”, but not in a derogatory way. Rather, he is both too able and too moral to be a hero, a villian, or simply a tool.

While a more noble self-relation might be to Dagny Taggart, I realized there is Eddie Willers-esque pop culture icon: The lead character in Office Space.

Of course I’m talking about pre-gangsta Peter Gibbons. The company could be seen as the type of society that America evolves into in Atlas Shrugged, and Peter has no good way to evolve… so he gets creative. He does evolve into some kind of Ragnar Danneskjold, but starts off very much the Eddie Willers.

So who knows… maybe there are more exciting things in store for Eddie Willers 🙂