What is your next adventure?
Well, I was actually able to start my next chapter before I got my Ph.D. I am currently working at JPL as a data science engineer. I defended in late January and moved out here. I just got all of my [dissertation] edits approved the other night at around midnight - sent a photocopy of the paperwork to my parents in Malaysia. At JPL, I am working on the software side of things... actually last week, we started working on a project related to COVID 19 where we're trying to use NASA's satellites to predict the long-term effects of COVID 19 on society, the environment, and the economy. It's really cool, and it's not like I didn't like combustion -my domain knowledge in aerospace engineering is really helpful -- but data science felt like the right place.
What about your next adventure are you most looking forward to?
I really like JPL. It has a very campus-like atmosphere and, now, I get to choose my own topics, find my own experts in different areas like Europa and robotics, and join in on different problems. The world is really my oyster. And, now that I'm done with my dissertation, I don't have to work on my edits when I'm done with work for the day.
Did you have any previous co-op, internship, or research experience in this area?
As a freshman, I got involved in some research with Dr. Mavris on rechargeable micro-vehicles. To be honest, I didn't contribute much to that project but it got me interested in doing undergrad research. I looked for research every year after that. My next research project was with Dr. Holzinger on the RECONZO [CubeSat] mission and on space situational awareness -- really, that's space debris. And, from that, I can say that jumping into research is important not only to find out what you want to do, but to find out what you don't want to do. With space debris, there are problems with orbital mechanics and math that are way more hairy than anything I wanted to do, so after that project I went to Dr. Jagoda to get some idea of what else I could do. He put me in touch with Dr. Seitzman and the Combustion Lab, where they were doing an FAA project on ignition testing of alternative jet fuel. I started out on the experimental end of that project but I also go involved in a parallel area that involved computational simulation. That's where I started getting into data science. And I always think it's kind of funny that I ended up being the only doctoral student Dr. Seitzman ever had who never did an experiment. Not as a doctoral student anyway.
Internships were another story. As an undergraduate, I was not that motivated to put myself out there to compete when a lot of companies didn't want foreign nationals involved in aerospace research. But, with one year left on my Ph.D., I ran out of funding on my FAA project, so I started looking around for an internship that would pay me to finish. This was a pivot point in my time at Georgia Tech. There was a manager at UPS [United Parcel Service] who was looking for a data scientist intern to do advanced analytics for their group. They were trying to bring big data into their operations, someone who could jump into high-performance computing. They really like my problem-solving abilities, how, as an engineer, I focused on how to get things done efficiently. I can honestly say that I learned about AI and machine learning to prepare for that internship.
That internship got me started in a new direction so that, when it was time to graduate, and I saw a data scientist job at JPL, I decided to apply for it. But I didn't just apply. I figured out the hiring manager's email address and I sent him a letter. I didn't get a response, so I sent another. I also figured out his Twitter account and his Linked-in account and sent him notes. Finally, after I sent him the third email, he called me and suggested me have a phone interview. Even though I'd been pushing for this, I was afraid. I didn't have the educational pedigree that other applicants would. So my advisor, Dr. Seitzman, encouraged me to sell my skills, to show them that I was capable of doing as much, if not more, than someone with a data science degree. Still, I wasn't actually thinking I'd get it - there are so many others with more training in that field. But in the end, they liked the fact that, as a Georgia Tech Aerospace Engineering School grad, I had domain knowledge in aerospace as well as data science. The combination was what sold them.
How did your educational experience at Georgia Tech help you to achieve your goals?
The breadth of the course work helps a lot -- not only because of the domain knowledge they impart, but because of the way they teach you to attack problems. On a par with that is the faculty, who are like an interconnected web of resources and advice that works together to make you succeed. Dr. Seitzman didn't just help me prepare for JPL, he was there guiding me in life decisions all along the way. And if it weren't for Dr. Jagoda recommending me for a project with Dr. Seitzman, I would not have made that connection.
What advice would you give to an underclassman who would like to follow the same path?
Well, I've been practicing this already, since I have a sister who is a second-year in [the Georgia Tech School of] Mechanical Engineering. The first thing I told her was something I wish I'd done sooner: get a job on campus. In my case, I worked in the AE School mailroom, with Howard [Simpson] and I can tell you now, I found Howard way too late. An on-campus job gives you a great release from all of the pressures of classes, tests, and studying. It wasn't just a source of income; it was a connection to the AE community. I met professors coming into the mailroom all the time. Dr. Schrage actually hired me to TA one of his classes when I was in between funding.
The second thing I'd say is: get an internship. I know as a foreign national it was hard, but it was not impossible. For me, the internship was eye-opening. I saw an entirely different way of looking at the world, and I learned how to dress and how to act in it. I also built connections.