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Meet: Chris Maese

Payload Project Manager
Ames Research Center

photo of chris maese in office

My Journals

What I do:

I'm the Neurolab Payload Manager for the Science Payloads Operations Branch (SLO). I am responsible for ensuring the 15 experiments on Neurolab are conducted. I am also Crew Training Manager for all payloads developed by the Life Sciences Division, and I am the Astronaut Office Liaison for Life Sciences.

I've been on the Neurolab project for three and a half or four years; taking it through the definition phase, putting the science experiments together, understanding the science and how the hardware relates to it, then working with the processes that really set up the guidelines for how we have to operate in flight. You have to remember that things float in space which raises many new safety issues. When you perform an experiment in a spacelab environment, you have to make sure all fixatives are contained and sharp objects are not floating around. We have to ensure the crew's safety at all times.

We take the experiments and put the space perspective on it. Then we come up with ways (we're real flexible and creative around here in trying to figure out how we do this) to meet this safety rule, and meet this hardware constraint, meet this spatial constraint, etc. Then we roll this all into: here's an operator (astronaut) that may not be feeling too well that day. How do we simplify things so that this person can be our technician in flight? That way we get the best results we can get.

My Career Journey

The way I started here was really serendipitous; I didn't have an objective to work here. I earned my Bachelor's degree from the University of Santa Clara. I was planning to go to medical school but the first time I applied, I was placed on a waiting list. As I was waiting, I took some classes at San Jose State. I didn't get accepted [into medical school] that year, and I applied a second time. In the meantime I continued taking classes. I had the basic concepts from my undergraduate classes, but I wanted to take other classes that I thought I could benefit from. My fallback from not going to medical school was to teach. I was thinking of going into zoology, because I really liked zoology. I thought, "I could teach that."

The second time I applied to medical school I was placed on a waiting list again. By that time I was thinking that I should think of other career directions. I decided to finish my graduate degree at San Jose State University. One requirement for the graduate degree was a research project, but my department didn't have the money to support one. That's how I found out about a program that was a cooperative agreement offered through San Jose State and NASA. They would take a student in, provide a stipend, and the student would do some work at NASA Ames Research Center.

I was awarded a NASA/San Jose State University grant to conduct research with a NASA Ames Research Center Investigator (Dr. Emily Morey-Holton) in the area of bone physiology and an emphasis on histomorphometry. She had a project that she needed done, and I fit into that role. I had taken some histology classes and I knew anatomy and physiology, so it worked out well. I continued my research, and while I was here, Emily made funding available so that I could continue part time. Later it turned into a full time job, and eventually I became the manager of her lab.

The research project had been started and all I needed to do was finish it up and analyze the data. In order to analyze the data you have to process all these tissues. The process took a long time. When we started to analyze the first batch, the markers that were supposed to be incorporated in the tissues weren't there, so either the injections had not been given correctly, or for whatever reason they didn't get incorporated into the bones. So I lost my markers and I had to start the whole study all over again. It was supposed to be a two and a half year study and ended up taking over 5 years.

By the time I was able to complete my research project, I was thinking of getting my Ph.D. As I looked into it and found out more about the time involved, the difficulty getting funding and the fact that there was no guarantee of a job afterwards, I decided not to get Ph.D. and looked into industry instead. I applied for a job involving the training role that I have now, and was hired. It incorporated my skills nicely. I could draw on my experience as a lab instructor and faculty member to refine the crew training program and integrate it into the flight cycles. As a trainer, you have to keep up with everything. You have to make sure that the crew members are trained to do the experiments; that they know all the nuances of not only the science, but also of the hardware tools involved.

After about a year and a half my current job opened and I became a NASA employee. I don't know if I would say it was "being at the right place at the right time," as much as being recognized for doing good work and knowing that there were things that I could offer. That's why I believe I was selected to fill this position.

In working with the astronauts and the various organizations that support the astronaut office, I have become the "Astronaut Office Liaison." This means when anyone in the Life Sciences Division needs something from an astronaut, I am the single point of contact to the Astronaut Office. This establishes a clear line of communication and helps to keep everyone's understanding clear and consistent. This has really helped us as we have moved from Spacelab being primarily for human habitat, to Spacelab flying habitats for animals. We have so many considerations to address and because of my experience with the crew (understanding their needs, the condition of spaceflight and its requirements etc.) I can be a central point for opinions in assessing the hardware.

I've been involved in some of the development of the ARC hardware where we address these human factors and concerns. My belief is that we're not building hardware for astronauts; we're building hardware for operators. We know how this hardware is used, we know what's expected of it, we want to find out how this hardware could potentially fail, we want to know how we could repair it. Through all this keeping in mind: How is the operator going to relate to this piece of flight hardware? This is our one opportunity to do this experiment. It's got to work! The person using it has got to really understand this hardware: all the bells and whistles. That's something that I bring to this office; how I relate with the development process here.

Preparation for Career

I had an aunt who was a nurse. She was the first in our family to end up with a college degree, and so she was kind of a role model. I spent my summer vacations working as an orderly in a hospital, that helped to prepare me.

There was one time in my schooling that I asked myself, "what am I even doing in this field? I don't even know if I can survive this field." Then I went around and looked at other disciplines and thought of other career options. That made me think, "you know, I love biology! I enjoy it. It's exciting, and I like trying to understand it!" So I decided I can survive this, and I did. From early on I wanted to go into the medical field, and in school, they were really pumped on making sure that people are looking for a medical career, a dental career or a professional career. Being just a regular biologist wasn't something they promoted so you didn't really feel it was an option. Naively I went through this thinking that nothing else is out there. Amazingly there are a lot of careers in biology. It always helps to have some kind of knowledge base as you go into your career. I'm convinced that if you take knowledge and use that knowledge in a way that allows you to see things in different ways, you are capable of learning something new. You never have to think that just because you're in biology, you have to do biology. You can do many things. That's where I find myself now. If you have common sense (that's a critical element) and you can take information and utilize it, then you can do anything. I would never have dreamed that I would be in this career path with a biology degree, because first, I never knew that this existed, and second, it's something that people really don't consider.

As a kid I always followed NASA with the early Gemini missions and the Apollo missions. As a matter of fact, I once got into trouble for getting so absorbed in an Apollo launch that I was an hour and a half late to school. I had to go to the principal's office and spend my recess and lunch in the office to make up that time. Back then I never thought that I would be doing what I'm doing now, but it's all connected. This same aunt that was a nurse ended out going to New York and came back with this poster of the astronauts' first walk on the moon. I still have that poster. It's interesting: I was always interested in NASA and space flight, then I went on and I was interested in biology, and boom, years later, the two connect. Sometimes things just happen the way they do! Is that fate? I don't know - there's something out there!

Likes/Dislikes about career

There are good days and there are bad days, but all the bad days disappear with each success. I think that's what has made it possible to survive these past years.

Advice

What's really important in any career that you choose is that you need to experience it. You need to find some way to get involved in that area; whether it's on a volunteer basis, a part-time position, or whatever. It's critical that you get your foot in the door, because frankly, though you may have a resume in front of you that says that you have taken certain courses, and you have that level of practical application; it's the "real" application in the work force, or in a company, or in an institution, that helps you put the foot in the door. Also people get to see your work.....what you're capable of doing. Often, it's who you know, and where you are at the time that allows things to open up. Anyone pursuing any kind of career or job opportunity should go and spend some time doing it. We have a lot of great career programs through various JC's [junior colleges] and high schools here at Ames. If people are interested they get their foot in the door that way. Then you can determine if you want to pursue it or not and see what other areas or options you can look forward to. Working in Emily's office opened up a lot of doors. To me it was the means to an end, and that was to get my degree. I had no idea that I'd be working in that lab, or that I'd be working a full time job -- it never occurred to me that that's where that was going. But again, hard work, discipline, and learning really pays off. You're constantly learning. If you ever give up on learning, you're cutting off your opportunities out there, and that's the fun part! Humans like to learn.

Personal Information

I have a Shar-Pei, her name is Sophie. She's a very loving dog. I think she thinks she's human. I often joke around, when I leave her at home that she has invited the neighbors over, and she's watching TV, because she's such a character. She's really quite an amazing dog. She's getting older, she's losing part of her eyesight, so watching that is kind of difficult, but she's a wonderful dog. I like to work in the garden. It's the simplest decision I have to make: is this a flower or a weed? That's very relaxing! There is a sense of accomplishment. Most of the things that I do at work (while we may deliver items and meet schedule dates) don't give me a sense of closure, because the "real thing" (i.e. flight) hasn't really happened. It's still open-ended for me since I'm looking at the whole picture. Everyone else has their various tasks, and they feel a sense of closure, but for me, I don't feel that. So I work the garden knowing that, "Hey, this flower garden is looking really good!" It's the simple things.

I like to bike and bowl, and I like reading. I enjoy reading a lot. I travel frequently so I always have a book with me. I read science fiction and I like historical books. I like medieval history. I just read whenever I can. It reduces stress. When I'm in line waiting for my ticket, or my flight is delayed, no problem: I've got a book. I read 2-3 books and a couple of magazines at the same time. I go from book to book. If one becomes less interesting, I move on; it helps me get through it. Frighteningly, people aren't reading that much these days, and that's a sad commentary . TV is entertaining, but that's all it is - entertainment. Reading stimulates the imagination, because you can picture and you can dream. TV is so formatted, it doesn't allow us to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps. Reading is a totally different avenue of relaxation and enjoyment - at least for me.

I like to cook. Sometimes they're not too successful, but things usually work out and it's kind of fun to play around with different food combinations.

I like being around people. Whether people enjoy being around me these days, I don't know. They may think, "Here comes Chris, he probably wants me to do something or he's mad because I didn't do something!" But I really enjoy people's company, and I can't stop talking!


 
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