TJ hosts an annual all-day conference featuring student and professional presentations, tech exhibits, and more, to show students what they can accomplish at TJ and beyond while showcasing students’ work. Below are some highlights from tjSTAR 2014.
A panel of space experts featured: Stephanie Bednarek, Government Affairs Manager for SpaceX (pictured talking to students during the SpaceX classroom session); two engineers from Orbital — Crystal Lu, Systems Engineer, and Ben Hoang, Senior Director of Systems Engineering; and David Johnson, VP/General Manager, Honeywell Technology Solutions, Inc., who mentioned that a week earlier Honeywell had celebrated “100 years in aerospace.” The panel moderator, Orbital Master Systems Engineer Carlos Niederstrasser, who worked closely with TJ students on TJ3Sat, TJ’s satellite, told the students, “You’re already part of the space program; you flew your own satellite last year.”
PayPal founder (and current CEO of Tesla Motors) Elon Musk started SpaceX with the goal of “making humans a multi-planetary species,” Bednarek said in her classroom presentation. CEO Musk is a “really inspirational” leader, she continued. The company, which designs, manufactures, and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft, is best known for its Falcon launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft that carries cargo to the International Space Station as part of a public/private partnership with NASA. Dragon was designed from the beginning to ultimately carry crew. In fact, two days after tjSTAR, the company unveiled its Dragon V2 manned spacecraft, with seating for seven, an escape system, and helicopter-like landing capability. The first manned test flights are planned for 2016 or 2017.
The panelists agreed that the heyday of private space exploration is just beginning: “NASA can now purchase launch services from SpaceX and Orbital in a more commercial way,” Bednarek stated. “In the 90’s we saw the explosive growth of the PC. We are at the gateway of the explosive growth of commercial space flight, private ventures that will take people to space. There’s a waiting list,” said Orbital’s Hoang, “Only six entities have earned the right to say ‘we have done it’ – NASA’s space shuttle, Russians, Europeans, Japanese, SpaceX, and Orbital.”
Exploring the Oceans
The culminating event of tjSTAR was the keynote speech from deep-sea explorer and President of Ocean Exploration Trust, Dr. Robert Ballard, who is best known for his 1985 discovery of the Titanic. After an introduction by Katie Valery, TJ ’14 (right), who had interned on Ballard’s Nautilus research vessel, he set about to convince TJ students to devote their skills and energy to exploring the Earth’s oceans.
“I love the Earth and I don’t believe any significant number of us will live on Mars,” he began, addressing wanna-be astronauts. Exploring the uncharted mountain ranges of the ocean floor, Dr. Ballard learned that the entirety of the oceans’ waters circulate in and out of the earth’s crust over time, which explained the reason for sea water’s mineral content. He was also among the first to document the underwater volcanoes known as “black smokers.” “We haven’t tapped that energy,” he told the would-be geologists, physicists, and engineers.
Next Dr. Ballard addressed the future biologists and biochemists. We assumed that because the deep sea was in eternal darkness there was no life, he said, but living near the thermal vents that his team discovered they found “an amazing concentration of bizarre creatures” that have figured out how to manufacture energy chemically, without sunlight, in a process known as chemosynthesis.
More engineers listened as he described creating a remotely operated vehicle so that underwater work could continue uninterrupted. It’s more efficient if “robotic devices carry my spirit rather than my body,” he said.
Naturally, Dr. Ballard also discussed ocean archaeology, the work for which he is most famous. Mathematical models suggesting that one million shipwrecks have likely fallen to the bottom of the sea mean that there is “more human history in the deep sea than in all the museums of the world,” he stated. He may be best known for discovering the Titanic, Bismarck, and USS Yorktown, but in the Black Sea, where conditions are excellent for wood preservation, his team discovered shipwrecks thousands of years old.
After learning about all the different phases of his thrilling career, it’s hard to imagine any student contesting Dr. Ballard’s bold claim: “Your generation is going to explore more of the Earth than all previous generations combined.”
Exploring Life After TJ
Tysons-based business software company MicroStrategy, which featured its cutting-edge identity security products at a tjSTAR demonstration booth, employs several TJ alumni. Three of those alumni held a tjSTAR panel discussion to give students the benefit of their combined “lessons and experiences since graduating from TJ.” In lieu of prepared remarks, the trio simply introduced themselves and opened the floor to questions.
Tammy Le, TJ ’92 (left), Senior Manager, Operations, graduated from UVA with an architecture degree and received her MBA from Dartmouth. At MicroStrategy she works on mobile apps, social media, and emerging technologies; Thuy Le, TJ ’93 (center), Senior Program Manager, graduated from MIT with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and obtained a Master’s in Product Design from Stanford. At MicroStrategy, she works on social apps and exploring new technologies; Jeff Taylor, TJ ’01, Lead Program (Product) Manager, graduated from UVA with a dual degree in Computer Science and Religious Studies. He oversees the workflow, feature development, and vision of MicroStrategy’s mobile biometric identity platform.
On choosing a college
Taylor chose UVA over MIT for comfort reasons and because “graduating without debt is awesome,” though he gave up the chance to play baseball. Thuy Le made exactly the opposite decision, choosing MIT because it was in a city, near other colleges, and far from most other TJ students. In addition, MIT gave her the opportunity to play Division three soccer. What she liked best was that she didn’t have to declare a major right away. She felt that she was being invited to “just come learn.”
On making it through college
“MIT was hard. I’ll be honest. Sophomore year I almost dropped out,” Thuy said. “Freshman year, make it easy on yourself – the transition is hard. Embrace the lifestyle change,” Taylor offered.
On working before graduate school
Tammy Le worked in several different jobs after college and said unequivocally, “work experience helps.” Thuy worked for five years before going to graduate school and said “I wouldn’t have appreciated my design degree without my work experience.”
On joining MicroStrategy
“I wanted to go somewhere I could work hard and be smart,” Taylor said. “Since joining [in 2005] I haven’t looked back because the work is so engaging . . . I get to discuss the philosophy of computer science with colleagues.”
Tammy said, “Coming here was one of the best decisions of my life. I liked the level of trust, the opportunity, and the relationships with teachers.” “The one thing I love about TJ is that it helps prepare you broadly . . . it pushes you to develop genuine curiosity, ways of thinking, problem solving,” Thuy said, and Taylor agreed: “TJ prepared me to think. That was the best preparation. Nuance is so important. TJ’s humanities classes are very strong too. I would not be where I am today without my TJ education. I wouldn’t have had the same college experience, this job, none of it. . . I went to my reunion. What my classmates are doing is amazing.”
“I wish we had had opportunities like this to hear from alumni when I was here,” Taylor said to nods all around.