An Interview with NASA Principal Scientist at the Ames Research Center

Aida: Hi! My name is Aida Yoguely, and this summer I am interning at the NASA Ames Research Center. I am working with my mentor Dr. Bin Chen on developing a supercapacitor based on hybrid nanomaterials.

Today we shall be meeting my mentor as she shares her story with us.

Hi Dr. Chen!

Dr. Chen: Hi! My name is Bin Chen and I have been working at NASA Ames Research Center for the past 17 years. I am a principal scientist investigator here and working on the nanomaterials applications.

Aida: Where did you grow up in and what was it like?

Dr. Chen: I grew up in China. Mainland china and during the time there was a movement called the cultural revolution so we went through a very unsettling period of time.

Aida: Where did you attend school and what was your favorite subject?

Dr. Chen: I went to elementary all through college in China. I came here to the states for graduate school and my favorite subject has always been physics. I did not have a formal engineering course until I became an engineering professor.

Aida: Wow! So what was your major in college?

Dr. Chen: Chemistry, physical chemistry.

Aida: What inspired you to work here at NASA?

Dr. Chen: So when I got my PhD and I had two job offers. One is, I won’t say which agency but I had a very highlighted postdoc offer from NASA Ames and as well as a federal agency that made weapons. It took me a while to decide which agency I should go to because NASA pays substantially lower salary than the other agency. But down to the line of decision was that I thought it is easier to explain to my grandchildren that I work for the space program instead of weapon program.

Aida: Wow! That is very interesting. Where did you work before joining NASA?


Dr. Chen:
Oh I was in graduate school so this is my first job after graduate school.

Aida: Wow so how long have you been working here?


Dr. Chen:
17 years. That says how old I am.

Aida: What are your current projects?

Dr. Chen: We have a couple of project in the group. All based in making new materials. That being nano-material or likewise, mainly composite material, we engineer a new material either it is a nano or normal material but we try to take advantage of different components and put them together. But we do not just stop after making materials, we turn that into different type of devices. For NASA’s application, which is the main work in my group, is more multi-functional lightweight devices based on those materials.

Aida: What was one of the biggest obstacles that you’ve had as a materials scientist.

Dr. Chen: So if you call yourself a materials scientist, you mainly work on the materials. So that is not that much fun actually unless you can find application for your materials. That is the main thing, which you touched a little bit in the summer. You worked on the material but don’t stop there. You test the materials property then turn that into a device, then you test the device properties. So the main obstacle as a materials scientist is that you need to find resources, collaborations so that you turn your material into viable application. Otherwise you basically stop as a materials scientist which I don’t really think is that interesting. Is when that material scientist function can be extended into other areas.

Aida: Like say engineering.

Dr. Chen: Exactly!

Aida: As a mechanical engineer in your group, I have had the opportunity to work with electrical engineers, physicists, chemists, and material scientists.

What is your favorite aspect of conducting research with a multidisciplinary group?

Dr. Chen: You learn to appreciate other people, and you learn to appreciate other fields. Some people talk about nerdy scientists and that they are arrogant in someways, it is the way we call those people, because a lot of us are too focused on their own areas so you don’t get the appreciation of how good the other area that is being developed and how much you can learn from other people. That is the best thing about multidisciplinary research area and research teams. You will see, they may not be as good at what you do, but they are so good at other things. So you gain that appreciation not just in terms of research but as a human.

Aida: What was your most memorable moment at NASA Ames?

Dr. Chen: That was when the center associate director actually gave me a pat on the shoulder. It was the most bureaucratic moment that I was struggling. So this says two things, one if you work in the government agency you do have to deal with a lot of hurdles that you will not encounter elsewhere, but on the other hand when you do really good work you get that special attention from people that are well respected. So I think that was actually quite memorable.

Aida: Unforgettable! Are there some personal goals that you would like to accomplish this year?

Dr. Chen: I would like to see more integration of the research into people’s daily life. I do a lot of sustainable energy environment type of technology. So I would like to see that be more integrated into our normal daily life.

Aida: Do you have any hobbies? What are some of your favorite things to do?

Dr. Chen: My favorite thing is actually hiking and gardening so it is kind of related to what I was just saying. I want to push the lab into a more bigger scale.

Last weekend I put the solar panel onto the swimming pool and converted it into one garden so the area that accepts the sunlight will be filtered into the energy that we use. I had committed not to use any extra energy to do what my hobby is.

Aida: She is putting renewable energy in your farm.

What activities do you enjoy at Ames or California? So you like hiking, what are some of your favorite places?

Dr. Chen: Lake Tahoe is one of my favorite places. I used to take the group to hike in that lake, that is mainly a summer activity. In California you basically can go across, within one week, ski, wine tasting, beach, surfing all within five days. This is a great area to live.

Aida: There are a lot of outdoor activities in California.

What would you like to be doing 5 years from now, maybe 10?

Dr. Chen: You saw a corner of that. I wanted to develop my own brand name of wines. So some of the lab techniques would be used to monitor the process. Like the traditional wine making process, we would use Raman spectroscopy to monitor that.

Aida: Oh really?

Dr. Chen: Yup! Then there are other things like some of the structure membrane we developed here and wanting to use that, because when you make wine you take a lot of water usage. In California we had a drought last year. Water is very precious here. So we want to reuse the water.

Aida: What advice do you have for a high school student interested in your occupation?

Dr. Chen: I think the scientist R&D job is not for everyone so as a high school student you really need to find who you are and what your strengths are to do things. If you wanted to be a scientist or engineer or researcher, there are a couple of characteristics you need to have. One is you have to have a very long attention span. If you attention span is short, I do not think this is a good job for you. And two is you should be excited to explore new things, you have to be creative. Curiosity is a key ingredient to enjoying to be in this position.

Aida: Thank you very much for your time and for the opportunity to have worked and learn so much from you this summer Dr. Chen.

Dr. Chen: I really enjoyed having you here Aida. I think this is one of the best student that I have had.

Aida: Well, thank you very much.

Watch the full video interview:

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