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Meet: Phil Lane

Systems Analyst for the Electronic Data Collection System (EDCS)
Ames Research Center

photo of phil lane

What I do

Well, what I do is a little complicated to explain. I'll start with my job titles. At NASA I've usually ended up with the job title of payload scientist. Generally speaking, my job title at Lockheed Martin Engineering and Sciences Company is senior scientist. Most people who work at NASA facilities actually work for companies which have NASA contracts while a relative minority work directly for NASA as civil servants. So, technically, I'm a contractor employee. I work at Ames Research Center (ARC), a NASA research facility in Mountain View, California about 40 miles south of San Francisco. I usually work on the development of biology experiments that fly on the space shuttle. ARC is the NASA center which develops and flies non-human biology experiments, while the human experiments (in which the astronauts are experimental subjects) are generally managed out of Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas.

I'm sort of an overall coordinator of the activities that go on to conduct such a spaceflight biology experiment. There will typically be a principle investigator (PI) for the experiment, who will propose an experiment to NASA. The experiment will go through a scientific review process to make sure it is a worthwhile experiment to do. Once the experiment is accepted, I work with the investigator to figure out exactly how to get the experiment done within the capabilities and constraints of the space shuttle system. I work with the engineers at NASA (and at NASA contractor companies) to help build the experiment hardware which will fly in space and sometimes I help to train the astronauts to do the experiments. Then I help out with the conduct of the experiments in the prelaunch and postlanding periods. I'm involved with the experiment from back to front. That's generally what I do for NASA.

Because Neurolab is a very large project involving about 30 different investigations and several hundred people, I am working only a couple of small portions of the project. My title for Neurolab during the prelaunch period is systems analyst for the Electronic Data Collection System (EDCS). The EDCS is a system that the science team at Ames has developed, which we are using at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Essentially the EDCS works to track food and water consumption and weight gain over time in experimental laboratory animals, particularly rats and mice. We have all kinds of rats and mice in a big animal colony here at KSC and we track the food and water consumption and weight gain of the animals to see which are the healthiest and the best to be selected for flight. We want to select the strongest animals as the flight and ground control experimental animals. There are many, many animals that need to be prepared for flight because if the space shuttle doesn't launch on time, which is always a possibility, we need to have back-up animals for whenever the launch finally happens.

Because of this, we have a whole series of what are called contingency groups. We have separate launch contingency animal groups for an on-time launch, for a one-day delay, a two-day delay, a five-day delay, etc. By the time we are done with Neurolab we will have built up an animal colony the size of about 6,000 rats and mice. We are measuring food and water consumption and body weight gain on those animals. Depending on the different experiments, we collect data at different intervals. Sometimes we collect data on a weekly schedule, but mostly on a daily basis. So we end up with a huge amount of data to collect and process. My job is to look at all the pieces of that data collection process to find out where there are problems or inaccuracies and then to fix those problems. I'll work with the animal care staff who are weighing the animals and operating the balances. I make sure the balances are accurately transmitting the data to computer systems and I then work with the computer operators both here and at Ames to make sure the data is processed quickly and accurately so that we end up with quality data on these animals. That data is then used to select the flight animal groups and the ground control animal groups.

After launch, my job changes a lot. I become the science lead on the Replan shift at the POCC (payload operations control center) at mission control in Houston. During the spaceflight portion of Neurolab, or any complex spaceflight operation, there are always problems that arise. The ARC payload scientist, Tom Howerton, and the payload manager, Chris Maese, go right after launch from KSC to JSC in Houston and begin to work the execute shift (daytime shift) there at the POCC. However, they can't work 24 hours in a day. So for the night shift (the replan shift) they hand over to a backup scientist (me) and a backup engineer (Rich McKenna). During the replan shift, while Tom, Chris and the astronauts onboard the orbiter are asleep, the replan shift team thinks through all the events of the prior day and develops a plan for the next day for the astronauts. Sometimes the plan for the next day ends up identical to the schedule which was laid out several months ago for that day. On the other hand, sometimes we end up replanning the entire day. Each morning the crew gets an Execute Package produced by the replan shift with the new schedule for that day. So some of the words I write end up getting faxed up to the astronauts. Pretty cool.

My Career Journey

I have a pretty weird background. I'm a medical doctor. I went to medical school and underwent training in a pathology residency. I am a board-certified clinical pathologist (a doctor who knows a lot about clinical laboratory testing in hospitals) and I also worked for several years as a postdoctoral fellow in a molecular virology lab. For my post-doc, I was cutting and splicing DNA and working on viruses, a little bit with the AIDS virus, but particularly with a virus called hepatitis C. Up until about 1990, that is what I was interested in doing. But I had always been interested in the space program and I always wanted to grow up and be an astronaut. I remember, when I was a kid, sitting in front of the television watching the Apollo program with the astronauts landing on the moon. I looked at that and said to myself, "That's what I want to do when I grow up," and I've been trying to do that ever since.

When I was in my post-doc [post-doctoral studies], I started to look around for what I was going to do afterwards. I was thinking about becoming a professor in a university and teaching and doing research, which is the more usual academic route, but it seemed like it would be more fun and more interesting to go do something in the space program. I was living in San Francisco at the time and I started to go to Ames Research Center (south of San Francisco) and talk to people and knock on doors to see what kind of work might be available that would match my skills and interests. I ended up in this rather peculiar position of science support and science management, which is not a job that I had ever really heard of before I started doing it. It's a job that is important to do now but it is the kind of job that didn't exist 10 or 15 years ago, and might not exist 10 or 15 years in the future. I think many jobs in the space program are like that because it is such a rapidly changing area.

Likes/Dislikes about career

Everyone has different things they are looking for in a career. For me, one of the things I was looking for, therefore one of the really positive aspects, is change. I'm always doing something different. One year I'll work on a cell culture experiment, the next year I'll be working on a rodent experiment, the following year I may be working on computer stuff, then a stint in mission control, and even an experiment on the NASA reduced gravity airplane, the KC-135 "vomit comet". It's always changing, it's always different and I really like that. It's the variety that draws me in. Also, it has been an wonderful experience working with some really good people and having met and worked with some of the astronauts has been great. There are often very dedicated people working in the various corners of NASA and it is quite a privilege to work with them.

Like anything in life, there are always downsides. One of the downsides is that the pay is not so great. You can make a perfectly reasonable living, but you are certainly not going to get rich. In fact, with my background, I could go work as medical doctor and make a lot more money, but I would be having nowhere near as much fun. Another downside is an occasional sense of frustration. NASA and Lockheed are very large organizations. Large organizations have complicated politics and sometimes things do not happen in an efficient or sensible manner. Stuff happens and you look at it and scratch your head and say, "Heck, this doesn't make any sense at all." Sometimes you think of a good idea which would take an hour to implement and would fix a serious problem, but then it takes you 30 or 40 hours to persuade the bosses and everyone else to approve and implement the idea. That kind of thing can be very frustrating.

Preparation for Career

I was an avid reader of science fiction since I was a little kid. I remember my mom used to take me to the local public library and I would head straight for the science fiction section. Reading those kinds of books prepared me to think along the lines of traveling and working in outer space, that it was a perfectly normal thing to do. The other thing that I had a chance to do was get some early exposure to science. I had a fourth grade teacher who thought that I showed some promise and was interested in science. It turned out her husband was a working scientist so she took me to his laboratory one day. I think I may have broken some piece of lab equipment, but that visit impressed me very much and I thought, "I'd like to be scientist when I grow up." As I went through school I took science courses and pursued those interests. It has been fun ever since.

Advice

The most important thing is to find what it is that you REALLY like and study it as much as you can. It almost doesn't matter what it is, but the important thing is to be doing stuff that you are really interested in and you think is fun. If you are trying to do things that someone else tells you you should be doing and you hate it, you're not going to work at it very hard and you probably won't be successful. So my advice is, follow your heart.

Personal Information

I'm single and don't have kids but I do have a ficus plant that I've lived with for many years. I live in Berkeley, California, and have lots of friends there. I like to ride my bike and take walks in the hills and I enjoy skiing in winter and backpacking in summer The important thing is to get out into the woods, into nature, and run around. The Earth is a beautiful planet, both from orbit and on the ground, and we all need to work to keep it that way.

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