Status Report

Former NASA Ames Research Cneter Intern Makes Good

By SpaceRef Editor
August 18, 2007
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John Lewis was once a high school dropout but his experience as an Ames intern inspired him to continue his education and he is now receiving a PhD from the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Dr. Dale Cruikshank, a Planetary Scientist at Ames, mentored John Lewis over 8 years ago. Last week, there was a blog about Cruikshank. Recently, Lewis contacted Cruikshank to thank him for the experience and to let him know of his academic success. Here is an interview with Lewis. Question: Do you believe working with Cruikshank influenced your future?

Lewis: Definitely. I actually dropped out of high school, and without the confidence and excitement that I gained while working for Dale, I am not sure I would have been able to work my way back to the position I am in now. As one of the poorer kids in my hometown in San Luis Obispo, neither of my separated parents had a college education. Both worked long hours to pay bills. There were many temptations and opportunities I might have pursued if I had not had my experience at Ames. Question: How did you become a mentee to Cruikshank?

Lewis: My brothers roommate was working at Ames on robotics. I talked to him, and he said he could give me an internship working for him. I asked him if he knew of anyone who might be working on something closer to my interests in Astronomy. He introduced me to Dana Backman, who then introduced me to Dale Cruikshank. Dale was wonderfully kind from the start, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity for me. I was beyond excited.

Question: How long did you work with him?

Lewis: I worked for Dale for one summer while I was 15 to 16.

Question: Did you enjoy your time working with him?

Lewis: I enjoyed my time with him very much. The best parts were the time I could spend talking to Dale and asking him questions about his work, or his life as a scientist. He seemed to be living a comfortable lifestyle and doing what he loved. I remember thinking that it was a life I would like to live.

I also got my first taste of doing actual research work. I would like to say that I enjoyed it, but the level of research I was capable of helping with at that age was not very exciting. For the most part, I crunched numbers and wrote short macros to eliminate some of my number crunching. This was probably my first lesson that, while I love physics, research is not all about making fun theories or discoveries. A lot of work goes into accumulating and processing data.

Question: Do you believe that the work you did with him opened the door to other opportunities? Lewis: Yes, I believe the work I did with Dale, and the resulting publication that he was kind enough to let me be an author for made my resume and college applications look more appealing. It probably helped me get my scholarship at Occidental College as an undergrad, and my fellowship at University California San Diego (UCSD) as a grad student.

Question: Was there a moment where you thought that you definitely wanted to pursue science as a career?

Lewis: Some of my first memories of wanting to be a physicist are of watching a TV show about special relativity, and thinking that it meant I would be able to time travel when I grew up. I have wanted to be a physicist as long as I can remember.

My meeting with Dale was the first time I saw what life as a scientist could really be like, and his happiness was inspiring.

Question: Have you encountered any issues along the way that have made you question your choice of career?

Lewis: Yes, tons, almost everyday. I have never questioned my love for physics, but I have questioned my ability to be a good scientist, and the life I would have to live to be one.

Jobs doing research physics are hard to obtain, and there are many smart, hard working people who want them. The path to becoming a researcher often includes about six years of PhD work and five years of postdoc work all at fairly low salaries. Good candidates are then often forced to accept jobs in parts of the country that I would not want to live.

My love of physics, and my determination to be successful no matter what challenges I am faced with, has carried me through the rougher times. I still consider other career paths, and the possibility of leaving school with my M.S. instead of my PhD to get a job in industry.

In meeting many more physics professors at UCSD, I see that nearly all of them seem to place science as their number one priority in life. Some are conscious of this decision, and some are not. I think their love of science, or their need for success, drives them to spend most of their lives focusing entirely on their research.

Question: Have you mentored anybody? How was that experience?

Lewis: I have taught and been a teachers assistant for a few lab classes at UCSD, as well as tutored several undergrads. I have also helped a few undergrads do summer projects.

The time I spent being a teachers assistant or tutoring was fun, but most students were only interested in getting good grades. The students who seemed genuinely interesting in the subject matter were refreshing.

I found that helping undergrads with summer projects is much more rewarding. The ones I have met have generally been very enthusiastic about their work, and have been fun to talk with or help. Seeing other young people who love physics helps me to remember why I love it.

Question: What made you contact Cruikshank recently?

Lewis: After passing my qualifying exam and getting through my first year of classes, I felt that it would be a good time to report my progress. I figured he would be happy and proud to hear how I was doing.

SpaceRef staff editor.