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Meet: Dennis Chamberland

NASA Bioengineer


photo of dennis chamberland


Who I am:

I am a NASA Bioengineer. I used to be a U.S. Navy Nuclear Engineer. Before that I was a Navy Navigator. That means that I have had a lot of jobs with very complicated names. I have enjoyed them all, not as much as I love the one I have now! Let me tell you about it.

My Career Path

When I was 12 years old, I lived in a very small town in Oklahoma. One day I picked up my pencil and wrote to NASA at the Kennedy Space Center. This is what I said:

    Dear Sir,

    Please send me all the information you have on the space program.

    Sincerely,
    Dennis Chamberland

And they did! They send me information every couple of months for years. It made me want to work for NASA. So when I went to college I called a scientist at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and asked him what I should do in my college career to prepare to come and work at NASA. He gave me advice and I worked hard and seven years later, I was hired by NASA at KSC. Now that same man is my boss, Dr. Bill Knott.

What I Do

In our office, we design what are called "Advanced Life Support Systems". In other words, when we go to live in space permanently (like on the moon and Mars) we will have to bring all our oxygen, water, food and those things that will keep us alive for very long periods of time. We do research in living life support systems, called bioregenerative life support systems. That means, our life support systems are made up of very large gardens of crops like wheat, tomatoes, beans, peanuts, tomatoes, potatoes and other foods that the future space colonists can eat. Meanwhile, the plants produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide and purify drinking water! It is a wonderful system and exciting to watch. Isn't it so cool to think about a huge garden on the moon or on Mars?

A Bioengineer is a person who links living systems with non-living engineering systems. Think of it this way - if you build a plant growing box out of an aquarium and put in in the window, you have performed one of the functions of a bioengineer! You have begun to control the environment of a living system (plants). Think of other ways you can control your system, and you are doing the things that bioengineers do!

Advice

Preparation to become a engineer or scientist begins the first day of the first grade in school, and it continues throughout one's entire life. I still love to learn and to read and I am continuously surprised when I learn new things (which is just about every day). Read everything - fiction, fact, current events. The biggest lie you will ever hear is that "school is a drag". THAT is impossible.

Oh, and one other secret taught to me by one of my college professors: change the problems. Yes, you heard me right. When you are given problems in school - change the wording of the problems to match what you are interested in. (Keep the numbers the same, of course.) He challenged me in my college physics course to change the wording of all the problems in my physics book to space problems. That changed my academic life. I began to do that in all my classes and it made all the difference. School came alive and instead of working just the assigned problems, I worked them all. Try it for yourself! Make school a personal adventure by changing the problems to match what you like.

Likes/Dislikes about career

The best part of my career is being able to invent things and create them myself. I am so fortunate to be able to have a boss who allows me to decide how to do my job best. This is a real blessing and ultimately results in fantastic productivity. Its kind of like changing the words to the problems. In the end, the job still gets done, because no one changed the numbers.

The worst part of my career is not being able to involve my family more. It would be nice to be able to bring my kids to work with me more so thay could share in the adventure of NASA and learn from it.

Preparation for Career

As a kid, I was a rocket fanatic. When I was in the 9th grade, a friend of mine (who was an aspiring artist) drew the cartoon about me that I have attached here for you to see. It is so cool to look back over 30 years ago and see that cartoon has really come true in so many ways. I read all that I could about space ships, moon colonies, visiting other worlds and going to the moon. I loved the book "First Boy On The Moon" so much, my mom actually typed the book out for me on her typewriter so I could have my very own copy. (She was a really great mom - and still is, by the way.) As I grew up, I remember how exciting my college classes were - doing real experiments in real laboratories.

When I was in high school, my dad allowed me to build my own laboratory in the basement of our home. He was very tolerant of my experiments except in two cases. In one case, I was about to (really) perform open heart surgery on my sister's cat, and when she caught me she screamed, the cat ran off and I got into lots of very big trouble. I understand a lot more these days. I am now the Chairman of the Kennedy Space Center's Animal Care and Use Committee and we have a lot of rules about that kind of thing. Then on another occasion, I collected the chemicals over the course of several visits to our local, small town drug store to make nitroglycerine. When the pharmecist figured it all out, he called my dad who made it to the basement just before I started the mix. He got kind of steamed up over that, too.

As the Good Lord would have it, I too am a father now. Only, instead of having just one son to worry about like my dad, I have five boys and one girl (ages 10 to 17).

photo of son photo of son photo of son photo of daughter photo of son

photo of sons horsing around in bedroom They are always dreaming up some kind of adventure or experiment to test me on. I, like my father, encourage them but also watch them very closely. I have much experience in this kind of thing, you know.

Influences

My favorite teacher in high school "rescued" me after I got kicked out of study period for flipping giant spit wads using huge meat packaging rubber bands. The teacher asked me to leave the class permanently - and she wasn't kidding. I was caught wandering around the halls by science teacher, Mr. Claude Archer. Mr. Archer heard my story then he put me to work. He also told me if he caught me flipping spit wads in his class he would hook me up to the 40,000 volt Van DeGraff static electric generator. He wasn't kidding and I knew it. My serious career as a youthful offender was over. For the rest of the year, each fourth period of that year, Mr. Archer gave me a new and different experiment in science to work on. That fueled my interest in science, and I was hooked for life. He has much of the responsibility in formulating my interest (and in keeping the hallways of Haskell Junior High safe between classes).

chamberland setting up scuba equipment My personal ambition for the rest of my career with NASA is to concentrate hard on the connection between space and the ocean environment. I call it the Space-Ocean Analog. I consider that my speciality. One can use the ocean as a kind of "test-bed" for space. It isn't my idea originally. In fact, it was first used in the Tektite program by NASA in 1969. They called Tektite the "Space Station in the Ocean". I like to think that the ocean environment is the closest thing to testing and practicing for space that we know of on earth. NASA allowed me to design and build what is called the "Scott Carpenter Space Analog Station". photo of scott carpenter space analog station

We took it to the ocean off Key Largo in September and October of 1997. It was on the ocean floor for 31 days. I spent 13 days in it myself, 10 of them while the Space Shuttle Atlantis was in orbit. So far, I have accumulated nearly a month living and working in these space analogs on the ocean floor. When I retire from NASA, I hope to retire in a permanent seabase. I think there is a very good chance that will actually happen.


Personal

My family and I love animals. We have a pet prairie dog (Nicki) - very fat. We have six rabbits, half a dozen gerbils, a dog named Mr. Peabody and a cat named Sherman. I have included photos.

photo of rabit photo of dog photo of cat

Please write me if you have any questions. I love to get mail from teachers and kids. And I especially love children - after all, I used to be one (and some say I still am).


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