Online From Jupiter 97
Sequence Integration Engineer
Hi there! My name is Leo Cheng. I was born in Taiwan but left at the young age of 7. My family immigrated to the island of Guam, a United States territory. A territory is not quite a state, but people living there are all US citizens (other US territories are: Puerto Rico, The US Virgin Islands). Guam is located in the Western Pacific Ocean. It's coordinates are: 13 degrees North, 145 degrees East. If you find it on the map (it's very small so you may take a while), you'll see that it's quite close to Asia. It is much closer to Asia than it is to Hawaii! For more information about Guam, check out the Guam Home Page (http://www.gov.gu/).
I spent almost all my childhood on Guam (from age 7 to age 19): learning English, playing in the "boonies" in my backyard, swimming in the warm tropical ocean, and fell in love with the night sky. I dreamed of traveling in space as a Physicist and Astronomer (I would later learn that a field of study called "Astrophysics" blends Physics with the ancient science of Astronomy.)
Although Guam has its own indigenous culture, American culture pretty much dominates. In fact, cable TV on the island brings all the TV shows (including commercials) from all the major stations in Los Angeles. Although I watched a lot of fun, entertainment shows, my favorite show was the science show on PBS called "NOVA". That was where my interest in science really grew. I enjoyed science classes in school, but "NOVA" showed what scientists are doing *today*. I also followed NASA missions like Viking, which landed a spacecraft on the surface of Mars, and Voyager, which traveled millions of miles, visiting Jupiter, and Saturn.
I knew that if I was to become a scientist, I needed to prepare for in school. I needed to take all the math classes I could get my hands on (there weren't that many offered on Guam at the time), and do well. I wasn't a "super-brain A student" or anything. I was a "B" student, who really enjoyed learning, just for the sake of it. I applied to colleges in California, and got in. I picked "California State Polytechnic University, in Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona)" because it was a good school, and I had friends who went there.
I choose to study Physics because it's *the* science that deals with the fundamental laws of nature. I really enjoyed studying Physics. The Physics department at Cal Poly was just small enough to allow the students to interact with many professors on an informal level. Although I learned a lot in college, I knew that I needed to go to Graduate School to get my training in Astrophysics. I also wanted a change in my environment. I wanted to experience life in the East Coast, including the cold winters. So I packed my bags and left for "Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute" in Troy, New York.
Rensselaer was very different than Cal Poly Pomona. It had a great history, being the first technical institute in the US. It also had a reputation of being tough. Finally, it was in the middle part of New York State (upstate New York if you're from the city), which meant some very cold winters. All of the differences became challenges for me to adjust. I have to say that it was quite difficult at times. Graduate school also showed me what research scientists really do. They are, as a group, extremely dedicated people who sacrificed much of their lives in the pursuit of science. They write a lot of proposals for funding their research projects, with many rejections. I soon realized that the life of a research scientist was not what I wanted. So I finished my master's thesis in Astrophysics, completing my M.S. degree in Physics, and returned to Los Angeles to look for a job.
Working for NASA was always a goal of mine. While I was in Los Angeles, I got an opportunity to visit the "Jet Propulsion Laboratory" (JPL). I learned that JPL was *the* NASA research center responsible for the Voyager, and Viking missions that I followed with great interest as a kid. I joined the "Planetary Society," a non-profit organization supporting space exploration. I participated in the societies events which provided the public near real-time pictures sent from Voyager as it flew past Uranus and Neptune. Those experiences made me decide to try and find a job at JPL, when I got my Master's degree.
It took 9 months of writing letters, re-working my resume, and doing some part time teaching before I was lucky enough to land the job that I wanted...working at JPL. And it wasn't just any job at JPL, it was working on Galileo, a spacecraft that's already flying in space, towards one of the planets that Voyager flew by when I was a kid. With my Physics and Astrophysics background, I was picked to work on a science team creating the commands that collect science data.
For the last 3 years, I've worked with 2 science teams, working with scientists and engineers in creating the commands that are sent to the spacecraft. Just last month, I accepted a new position on the project, as a Sequence Integration Engineer. Instead of being responsible for commanding the science instruments, I now have the responsibility "integrate" or "put together" all the commands from all the science instruments (there are 11 of them), as well as the commands that effect the *entire* spacecraft, like firing the rocket thrusters, and keeping the Deep Space Network's large "dish" antennas locked on the spacecraft's radio signals maximizing the science data returned.