OCA Member Goes From Musician to Student to NASA InternI decided to go back to college at 32 for astrophysics and with hard work and determination have already had the honor of finishing two programs at JPL / NASA.
By: Vadim Taver
October 9, 2017 12:28PM PDT
I was a straight A student in high school growing up in Pennsylvania and like many I had no real plan for an
"adult career." In fact, my only real interest at the time was playing music and I was fortunate enough to
have found an underground music scene to call home. I've been playing in bands throughout high school and
suddenly my bands started gaining some popularity. I signed to my first record contract and did my first real
touring during the Summer immediately upon graduation. Seeing no future in a career in music, my mother
constantly lectured me about how important college was and I registered for my first semester at The College
of New Jersey with no declared major. During the next year, I became so disillusioned with studies and so
miserable with the college experience that I let my grades become the worst they have ever been. Sound
familiar? Was this partially due to the excitement of playing/recording music and traveling the world in my
late teens? Probably. Was it partially due to not having any idea what I wanted to do for THE REST OF MY
LIFE? I would say this was the major factor. How can an 18 year old possibly make this kind of decision? Yet
we are forced into this mentality and expect to pursue college after already having done school for what
feels like our entire lives up to that point. With absolutely no focus at college and great disappointment to
my mother, I decided school was no longer for me with the thought that I could always return at any point in
my life. This point came almost 15 years later.
I was fortunate enough to be able to do what most people only dream of in my post-high school years. I have
released multiple albums of my music both with bands and as a solo artists. I have played hundreds of shows
and festivals around the United States, Canada, and Japan. I was able to meet people from all over the world
and make life-long friendships and relationships that would have never been had I not done those things right
after graduation and stayed in college. In no way would I take back any of it. However, after touring for
many years and moving to California in 2006, I found that unfortunately music wasn't as sustainable as I
thought it may be as an adult. I've worked jobs at record labels, vinyl distributors, clothing brands, gave
private guitar lessons, and in the last five years have been teaching an after-school chess program
throughout Orange County Elementary Schools - still with no real long-term goal in mind. That is until 2014
when I re-watched the original Cosmos series with Carl Sagan. I don't remember what inspired me to do so in
the first place but I was hooked. There was so much information and so much wonder in our universe and I
haven't ever really been looking.
In the Soviet Union (where I lived the first 7 years of my life), Yuri Gagarin was a household name, a
national hero, so there were instances where I've thought about space. But, I never really gave much thought
to learning more about the mysteries all around us until just a few years ago. I began re-teaching myself
algebra, trigonometry, and pre-calculus by way of Khan Academy online for free and placed right into Calculus
at Golden West College for Spring of 2015. I chose physics as my major as astronomy isn't available as a
major at the Coast Colleges and began to knock out class after class. While working 2-3 jobs during the
weekdays, I went to classes in the evenings and did homework all weekend, even listening back to my recorded
physics lectures while driving in my car from job to job. I managed to get straight A's in every single
class, one after another. Slowly I was making my way through the math and science-heavy STEM curriculum when
I decided to contact the head of the science department for a meeting to which she agreed.
She made me aware of a program called Jet Propulsion Laboratory Undergraduate Scholars (JPLUS) which Golden
West College participates in and told me she could nominate me when the time came if I was interested. A
single student is selected from each participating southern California community college to represent the
entire campus for this program. I was thrilled when I was accepted into the program beginning in the Summer
of 2016. Our group consisted of about 30 students and we met at JPL in Pasadena for meetings at least once
per month with the option for many more at both JPL and Caltech. We were badged as an official intern with a
photo government NASA ID (still surreal to me), and were granted access to the premises for 7 months. This
time was spent attending lectures of various forms such as choosing a career path, how to write a proper
resume, how to present yourself at conferences, how to write proposals, etc. We were also able to explore
various facilities, labs, the Hub (a library and hangout with accessible 3D printers) and encouraged to
network as much as possible.
The most exciting place we visited was the Space Flight Operations Facility where NASA's Deep Space Network
(which has been in use for over 60 years, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) communicates, monitors, and controls
all unmanned NASA's spacecraft beyond low earth orbit including the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers on Mars,
the New Horizons space probe that flew past Pluto a couple of years ago, and Voyager 1 -- the farthest
manmade object launched into space. JPLUS is coordinated by NASA's Office of Education whose entire budget
was in danger of being slashed by the latest federal budget proposal but thankfully was recently modified.
JPLUS also made us aware of other NASA/JPL opportunities as well as internships and I applied for another
program called NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) and was accepted beginning in January 2017.
NCAS began as an online course where many videos, articles, etc were made available to us and quizzes were
given to monitor our progress. The overall theme was sending humans to Mars, as this is one of the upcoming
missions that NASA and other private companies are preparing for within the next decade or two. At the end of
the class we were provided a few choices for a final project which included designing a Mars rover and
proposing our own Mars mission. The submissions were evaluated by staff and the best essays were chosen and
selected to participate in a week-long stay at a NASA location for a group project.
I was chosen and in July of 2017 returned to JPL for a week filled with fun and stress. The participants were
split into 4 teams (I was on the RED team -- which per my suggestion we named "700 nm" one of the wavelengths
of visible red light). During the week, we were presented with lectures from NASA engineers, had panel
discussions with past interns who now hold positions at JPL, and were given projects of our own to complete
and present by the end of the last day. One of the projects was to design and build a rover from a Lego
Mindstorms EV3 robotics kit that could retrieve "Mars rocks" from certain terrains. The kit had various
censors such as a gyroscope and the central brick computer had to be programmed for the various robotic
commands we wanted it to carry out. During this week we got to visit Mission Control again. We also got to
see a gigantic clean room where engineers were dressed in white bunny suits as they worked on future
experiments going out in space such as on the Mars 2020 Rover.
JPL has an area called The Mars Yard where the rocky terrain mimics the conditions on Mars's surface, which
I've visited before during my time at JPLUS. What I didn't know was there is a garage there containing an
almost exact replica of the Curiosity Rover named Maggie, that is used to troubleshoot and run tests with
before commands are sent to Curiosity. We got to explore her up close and personal. We also saw a model for a
NASA project in development called Starshade which is essentially a giant flower that will open up in space
with a detector in the middle. The "pedals" are composed of a reflective material so when focusing on a
particular area of space, most unwanted light will be reflected and the detector will collect only a limited
number of photos, thus hopefully making another new technique for exoplanet detection.
For now my time at JPL has come to an end, but I have made contacts and networked enough to have a big foot
in the door. This Spring I will be awaiting acceptance into university to begin an astrophysics program, and
will hopefully return to JPL for an internship position where I will be able to work on an actual project
that will one day depart from this Pale Blue Dot. Carl Sagan may have been my inspiration to pursue a new
interest but he has done so much more. He has given me, in my 30s, an entirely new chapter in life and has
made my mother very happy with my decision to return to school. If you are unsure about where your life is
heading, your career, etc. just remember that you are the facilitator of your own destiny. If someone would
have told me 5 years ago that I would step foot into NASA, I would have laughed at how impossibly absurd that
situation would be, and yet in just a few years and a lot of hard work, I am experiencing my dreams and have
set course for a new career and life.
- Vadim Taver
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