Meet: Duncan Atchison
Space Life Sciences Outreach Office
Who I am:
For the past two years I've been helping out in the Space Life Sciences Outreach Office, located at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. Here at Ames, we are right in the middle of "Silicon Valley" and also close to Stanford.
I tell the public about all the interesting things we're doing in the life sciences, through Internet sites, at conferences and open houses, in visits to schools, and through comic books and posters.
Before this job with Outreach here in California, I had been at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., for nine years as an engineer doing space mission planning. Before that I was a computer scientist with the government for five years, developing databases and artificial intelligence systems to help repair F-14s.
My Career Journey
Even as a kid I loved watching Star Trek, but it wasn't until the Challenger accident in 1986 that I really got to thinking I wanted to support the Space Program. A few months after the accident I found a great job as a computer systems engineer doing Advanced Mission Planning with the Office of Space Flight. Despite what many job search books will tell you, I found the job through an ad in the Washington Post!
As a kid, it certainly helped that my dad was a professor of computer science. Back in the 1960s there was nobody else in my elementary school who could say they were programming a computer (Basic on the Univac 1106 at University of Maryland).
My undergraduate degree was in math/computer science, and probably the best thing I did for my career was to become a Co-op student (I alternated semesters going to school and working at the Air Force Data Services center at the Pentagon).
After working ten years, I went back for a master's degree.
My mom was an elementary school teacher. Through many trips to her school over the years I saw how thrilled kids are to hear about the space program.
Likes/Dislikes about career
The greatest positive is seeing the excitement the public has when I talk about our missions.
The greatest negative is that being in a "Team Environment" means that everything, from a comic book, to a Website, to a paper for a presentation, has to be reviewed and approved by up to a dozen people.
The technical part (science or engineering) is important to get your foot in the door, but what will make you stand out and get ahead is the ability to think and write clearly. (Book recommendations: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler.)
Pets? I have several hundred redworms (Lumbricus rubellus). Sorry, I haven't named them, but they are great at eating all sorts of organic garbage (worm composting).