Life at JPL and working as a NASA scientist are thrilling for me. No two days are the same, and something new always turns up. For people like me that are interested in figuring out how things work or solving big problems, being an engineer or scientist is a dream job. I have been very lucky to have opportunities open up for me.
My path into science was pretty natural for me. I grew up and went to school in England, where high school was a very different experience than the one my son is having in the US. I started with all the basic sciences and math in (the British equivalent of) 7th grade. I really enjoyed the science classes probably because I had a natural talent for them and I had some pretty wonderful teachers. This turned into my focus for the rest of high school and became my major in college. Although the work level was much more demanding, I still enjoyed chemistry enough to get both a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in the subject.
Michael Gunson. Credit: NASA.
When I began looking for openings to do postdoctoral research, I found an opportunity to work with a distinguished scientist in the UK to provide basic laboratory measurements for a space shuttle experiment, the Atmospheric Trace Molecule Spectroscopy (ATMOS) project, being developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). ATMOS was intended to study the chemical composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and, in particular, around the ozone layer. I applied for the opportunity and the scientist in charge took me on! Since my postdoc advisor was a very senior scientist and was over-committed to support a number of projects, he decided to ask me attend the ATMOS science meetings at JPL. I was really excited to go and spend time there.
After my first visit to JPL, I realized that the data being taken by this new instrument was waiting to be analyzed. I started to work with a team that had developed application tools for the analysis, but quickly learned that no one was actually using the tools. Over several years I was fortunate to spend more time visiting JPL, working very long hours, but analyzing data to point where I became a local expert with the tools and data. To help focus my work, I learned as quickly as I could why gases such as ozone, methane, and chloroflurocarbons* (CFCs) were important in the chemistry of the atmosphere. This had a big personal pay off: I was offered a job at JPL to which I immediately said “Yes, please!”
For two or three years at JPL, while we waited to fly ATMOS again on the space shuttle, I loved having no professional responsibilities other than to get new scientific results out of the shuttle experiment data. Eventually, my mentor stepped down from his role as supervisor of the experiment and recommended to NASA that I take over.
Those early years at JPL were really productive scientifically for the ATMOS team. The cause of the ozone hole over the south pole was a major popular scientific topic, and related issues on why or how the ozone layer was being eroded was a focus for our research. Looking back, we made many solid contributions. We now know that CFCs were escaping to the atmosphere, and there being broken down by ultraviolet sunlight to form reactive chlorine, which acts as a catalyst for the loss of ozone. It is always rewarding to work on something really cool!
*Chloroflurocarbons are organic compounds that were the by-products of processes involving methane and ethane. They were once used as refrigerants, propellants, and solvents in everyday applications.
Post by Michael Gunson, Global Change & Energy Program Manager at NASA JPL