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Small gestures that alter careers

Gregory Nelson

October 22, 2013

After taking his course on the planetary science of Mars, I had the good fortune to work as a Caltech undergrad in Bruce Murray's lab as a research assistant in 1973-1974. I was looking at the distribution of Mars wrinkle ridges in Mariner 9 data sets. Jurrie van der Woude helped me to understand the photo organization and data systems and I enjoyed pestering grad students Mike Malin and Rich Terrell with questions. They put up with me (a chemistry major) because I worked cheap. I also had the opportunity to help out on the Mariner 10 mission during the 1st Mercury encounter (1974) as an assistant for the television experiment team. As each raw image was transmitted from Mercury it was displayed on screens in the Mission Control Center but not every picture could be displayed in real-time. A "Digifax" system produced hard-copy prints from the TV images that were displayed on the real-time monitors before high quality images could be produced by the Image Processing Laboratory. In order to facilitate timely printing of the most geologically interesting or relevant images, I was tasked with drawing a quick sketch map of the real-time images (about 1 per minute) and handing these off to the professional geologists on the television team for their planning and decision making. These were usually Brian O'Leary, Robert Strom and John Guest but occasionally the very busy Bruce Murray. It was a priceless experience to be one of the persons to see the surface of a planet for the first time and I felt immensely lucky. I still treasure a few of those Digifax images that the team tossed in the trash. Some years later in 1980 after biology grad school in Boston I visited a number of Caltech friends and acquaintances including Bruce and Suzanne who were spending part of their summer in La Jolla. I brought along a lady friend to lunch in La Jolla where Suzanne related her hobby of exchanging well wishes with foreign dignitaries (met through NASA/JPL activities) on holidays or their birthdays and amassing a fantastic autograph collection in return. I passed that idea along to my daughter, Katja, years later and she too has a growing autograph collection. On that visit Bruce had an idea and made a quick call to JPL which arranged for me to meet some biologists there while I was still visiting California. That visit later turned into a job seminar and I eventually joined the lab in 1982. Since I now had a "real job" I was also able to marry that lady friend, Denise. Later as a group supervisor at JPL our Biotechnology group flew our own Shuttle based experiments (STS-42 and STS-76) investigating radiation hazards (bio-dosimetry) and I still maintain a research program focused on charged particle radiation and its implications for astronaut health. I'm grateful that besides the more formal research opportunities, it's those small, kind gestures and courtesies that can alter careers and personal lives. Thanks Bruce and Suzanne for taking the time for me. Gregory Nelson (Caltech BS, 1974), Sierra Madre resident and Professor of Radiation Medicine, Loma Linda University.

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