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!

The New Moon– absolutely still in the picture

The New Moon: That was the title of Andy Chaikin’s public talk this week at the3rd annual Lunar Science Forum, held at NASA Ames Research Center and hosted by the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI).  He claims the title was not inspired by recent pop culture… phenomenon… but that is besides the point.

Some say NASA is abandoning the Moon.  The future of manned spaceflight is unclear right now, and many are experiencing losses of jobs, but I want to look at something else:  Who cares about the beauty of real scientific exploration?  Judging by participation in the Lunar Science Forum this year, I would say a lot of people.  Is the Moon ‘dead’?  A resounding NO, judging from the highest attendance yet for the meeting, the amazing science results, and the many young faces of the Next Generation of Lunar Scientists and Engineers interested in the Moon.  They are not going anywhere, and that message is loud and clear!

Forked impact melt. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

I guess I should give the disclaimer that I work at the NLSI 🙂 but also that I used to be a Mars person.  Mars is still exciting, of course, but  in the past few years the Moon really has become a whole new Moon, most obviously with the discovery of water in amounts different than expected (a simple statement with many scientific papers enveloped in it).

One of the highlights from the meeting for me was hearing that there are craters in the polar regions of the Moon that are estimated to have high levels of water available… less than 50 km from areas with near constant availability of sunlight.  All the recent science about the Moon greatly informs human exploration… and what is better than having science and exploration walk hand in hand?

If you want to know more about the lunar science shared at the Forum, go tohttp://lunarscience2010.arc.nasa.gov/agenda; the talks will be posted there shortly.

In the meantime, keep dreaming about all the undiscovered secrets of the Moon:  lava tubes, pockets of water, and combining awesome LROC image data with mini-RF data (really really cool insights!)

And it is only fitting that the Lunar Science Forum is being followed up by aNewSpace Conference.  A New Moon indeed!

Cross-posted at http://www.opennasa.com/2010/07/24/the-new-moon-absolutely-still-in-the-picture/.

Help Science go Mainstream!

Hello, Universe!

I’m putting a dream I have had for a long time on center stage, by applying to be the host of a show on Oprah’s new network.  Specifically, I am proposing a sassy science show, where I would share how fun, interesting, and relevant science can be to one’s life.

I could really use your support for this adventure;  you can vote an unlimited amount of times (as long as this is not done by a ‘bot).  Comments would be great, too!

So why is this so important?!

Science is important to ALL of us, not just those going into scientific or technical careers.  Science informs your choices so you are a more informed voter, mother, and world citizen.  It touches on everything from medical choices for your family, what effect the choices you make have on the environment, and a general sense of wonder about exploring the world around us.

My audition focuses on science for the ladies, but I am certainly pro-educating the XX’s as well, but in general Oprah reaches a wide amount of women, many raising the next generation, and that is an audience that hasn’t really been talked to about science in a cool mainstream way.

I was born to share science with the world, and think Oprah’s network is the best way to impact people and change the world by empowering people with a knowledge of science.

So please vote for me, and thank you for the support!!!

Anthropology, SETI, and the exotic other

seti_logo_blueThe SETI Institute, located in Mountain View, CA on Whisman Road, recently hosted Professor Traphagen from the University of Texas, Austin.  Dr. Traphagen spoke on Some Thoughts from an Anthropologist on Culture, Interstellar Communication, and the Construction of Interstellar Messages.  This is a small sample of the ideas discussed in the lecture.

A cornerstone of the lecture was on the ideas of intelligence, culture, and the exotic other.  In particular, anthropologists are by definition experts at studying alien, a.k.a. exotically different other, cultures.  How alien must a geisha have appeared to a European in the 1800’s?  By understanding how SETI, as a different sort of “antropologist”, is searching to understand and communicate with aliens, professional anthropologist can contribute perspective on these communications via a deeper understanding of “culture”.  Traphagen describes culture, in one sense, as being defined by the sensory capacities of a given being.  For example, human culture is often manifested via art because we can see.  Similarly, alien beings might have different cultural manifestations due to different possible sensory apparatus.  These differences in culture will greatly affect how we communicate with them.

Little is published on this by academic anthropologists to date, but it looks like Dr. Traphagan is looking for a lucky student to help him at the University of Austin.  Dr. Traphagan’s lecture was very nuanced and thought provoking so check here for the video of the lecture to be posted soon.