You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do important work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). That’s what Singaporean scientific researcher Poh Gang Kai discovered when he was hired by NASA to work at the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland. His role is studying the space environment on Mars so that humans can, as one famous television show proclaimed, boldly go where no one has gone before.
13 July 2021 / By SGN
Gang Kai has always had a passion for astronomy since he was a child, revealing that “it was the beautiful pictures of galaxies, nebulas and planets that first sparked my interest”.
A voracious learner, he relied on library research to supplement the lack of space-related curriculum in school, culminating in his participation in the Astronomy Club at National Junior College. Realising this was his dream career, he flew to the United States after doing his National Service and spent five years earning a doctorate in Space Sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Getting hired at NASA is not as impossible as it seems
According to Gang Kai, the key is to get your name out in the scientific community. This means doing quality research as well as attending scientific conferences and networking. His current supervisor at NASA, Dr. Jared Espley, hired him based on his research experience, which was a good fit for the group Dr. Espley headed. Gang Kai shares a little about his own journey to NASA.
After completing his National Service in 2010, Gang Kai pursued his childhood dream of a career in the Space Sciences. He attended the University of Colorado at Boulder for his undergraduate studies, double majoring in Physics and Astronomy. During his undergraduate junior year, he had the opportunity to conduct research at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) with Prof. Daniel Baker, who is the Director of LASP and a strong advocate for Space Weather research.
“While working on my dissertation in Michigan, I also had the opportunity to interact and work with faculty members from the Michigan space weather research group to learn about space weather modelling. These opportunities increased my visibility within the scientific community.”Gang Kai, Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre
After graduating in 2012, Gang Kai went on to the University of Michigan Ann Arbor for his Doctor of Philosophy in Space Sciences under a graduate research fellowship working with Prof. James Slavin as his Ph.D advisor. Under the tutelage of Prof. Slavin, not only did he learn the art of conducting high-quality space research; he also had the opportunity to be involved in the science working teams of NASA missions (NASA’s MESSENGER mission to Mercury and the Magnetospheric Multi-Scale mission) and collaborated on numerous research projects with space scientists from NASA, Asia (mainly Japan and China) and the European Union. The Climate, Atmospheric and Space Science department at the University of Michigan is also home to one of the largest space weather modelling research group in the world.
After graduating from the Ph.D program in 2017, Gang Kai stayed on in Michigan as a postdoctoral research associate before hired by the Planetary Magnetosphere Laboratory in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 2018 to study the space environment at Mars as part of NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars.
There’s more to NASA than rocket scientists
Having dreamt about working at NASA since childhood, Gang Kai was surprised to discover just how diverse and multi-disciplinary the NASA community is. With tens of thousands of employees across 12 facilities in the United States, NASA counts space systems engineers and heliophysicists among their number, NASA employees range from engineers (e.g. electrical, mechanical, space systems, computer science) and scientists from different fields of sciences (ranging from Earth Sciences, Biology, Chemistry, Geophysics, Planetary Sciences and Aeronomy, Astrophysics to Heliophysics) to administrative support in the finance department who handle research funding-related finances and science writers for public outreach.
“I have always thought that in order to get a job at NASA, I have to be a space scientist (or a rocket scientist) or have an education that is space-related. But when I came to NASA, I realized that wasn’t true,” he explains. “NASA is like an ecosystem of different organisms living in it, each playing a significant role in NASA’s continuous goal of pushing the next boundaries in human space exploration and advancing our knowledge of the universe.”
There’s never a dull moment at NASA
A typical day for Gang Kai starts with spending time with his diverse group of colleagues over coffee. “All great ideas and collaborations start from a conversation,” he shares. Concepts for potential NASA missions, including sending humans to Mars, are often conceived during such informal group meetings.
Instead of having a set of routine tasks to be completed each day, he revealed, scientists and engineers are constantly engaged in multiple research projects, with each project consisting of several phases. For instance, NASA engineers involving in the development of a satellite that will either orbit around Earth or other planets will design and build instruments on the satellite and conduct onsite testing to ensure survivability in space, before finally launch the satellite in a launch facility.
The process is similar for a scientist, where Gang Kai designs projects to test his hypotheses, analyzes data and implement scientific methods before arriving at a conclusion. The task for each day depends on the type of project and the phase in which the project is in.
“Every day we are faced with different challenges. It could be as simple as debugging a programming code to a failed experiment; but it is these challenges and the passion for our research work that makes our daily work very exciting, because every day is different from the last.”Gang Kai, Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre
Gang Kai derives the most satisfaction comes from project completion, which may take anything from months to years, depending on the project scale. After a project concludes, Gang Kai and his team would then move onto a different project and the project cycle repeats in a continuous process.
His research could help prevent billions of dollars in damage
Gang Kai works on research projects that provide valuable insight into how the Sun affects the space environment around Mercury, Earth and Mars.
“Space Weather, which is also a sub-branch of space sciences (or space plasma physics), is the study of the space environment around Earth and how it interacts with the Sun, with emphasis on safeguarding our technology assets in space and on ground from extreme space weather conditions. It is similar to study of weather storms for accurate prediction and damage mitigation,” he explains.
He likens his work with research into typhoons and hurricanes on Earth, which is conducted in order to learn how to predict them and mitigate their damage. The main difference is that the geomagnetic storms caused by the Sun’s interaction with each planet’s space environment could have consequences for the entire planet. For example, it would cost billions of dollars if crucial satellites orbiting Earth are damaged or destroyed, since Earth is very reliant on satellites for telecommunications and GPS.
So how may an aspiring NASA researcher get started?
Gang Kai asserts that being bold enough to take the first step is invaluable in one’s long journey to NASA.
“Do not be afraid to step that first step in following your passion. Do not lose sight of your passion even when things get tough. It may sound cliché but at least for me, it was that passion and love for my work, together with the support of my family, that kept me through the countless late night cramming for exams, debugging a code and writing my dissertations,” he recounts.
Singapore has been playing a significant role in the development of space science and engineering in the Southeast Asia region. For instance, Singapore is home to the annual Asia Oceanic Geophysical Union (AOGS) conference and NTU’s Satellite Research Centre has been a leading player in satellite development in Singapore. The AOGS conference is due to be held virtually from 1 to 6 August 2021.
Over the years, Gang Kai has also become increasingly interested in public outreach, hoping that he could use his knowledge to increase the awareness on the importance of space sciences and the socio-economic impact space weather has on our technology and even society as a whole. “I sincerely hope that by doing so, we can inspire, teach and produce the next generation of space scientists and engineers here in Singapore”, he shares.
In particular, Gang Kai would like to highlight the public outreach efforts of the Singapore Space and Technology Ltd (SSTL). “They are doing amazing work with promoting awareness of the space sciences and technology in Singapore through training courses for those aged 13 and above, space camps and hosting the International Space Challenge (ISC).” Gang Kai will be serving as a subject matter expert for the ISC this year.
A good place to start, for students, he adds, would be going to public events (e.g. stargazing activities and seminars) that some of the local astronomy clubs may host – for example, there is an astronomy club at the National University of Singapore.
“Nothing is more inspiring than seeing with your own eyes, for the first time through a telescope, Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, Saturn and its majestic rings, and beautiful star clusters lightyears away,”Gang Kai, Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Gang Kai hopes that one day he can use his experience and expertise to help develop the space sector in Singapore. He is part of an ongoing movement that dreams of making Singapore a name in the global space industry. For him and others like him, space is truly the final frontier.
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About Gang Kai
Poh Gang Kai is a research associate at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. His research focuses on the interaction between Mercury, Earth and Mars plasma environment with our Sun. Gang Kai currently serves as a Steering Committee member on the Mercury Exploration Assessment Group (MExAG), which was a community-based organization established by NASA to provide science input required to plan and prioritize future Mercury research and exploration activities.
Gang Kai is also passionate about teaching and sharing his knowledge with others. He has mentored undergraduate students on various research projects and will be teaching a course on Space Weather at the Catholic University of America Physics Department. Through his proud multi-cultural background growing up in Singapore and experiences he encountered while living abroad, Gang Kai also hopes to promote diversity and international inclusivity within the space research community through mentorship of students from traditionally underrepresented groups. He is also currently serving as a MExAG representative on the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility Working Group.