Dr. Yvonne Pendleton, Director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Lunar Science Institute, obtained her Bachelor of Aerospace Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and with a scholarship from NASA, earned her Master’s Degree at Stanford University and Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz. She has been researching about the origin and evolution of organic material in the universe, which earned her the honor of an asteroid being named after her: Asteroid 7165Pendleton.
Dr. Pendleton has contributed to scientific society not only as a successful leader, but also as a mentor to many students as an academic dean of students at NASA Ames Research Center. She has also been active in academia throughout her career, teaching at universities and involving herself in activities such as volunteering at middle schools and high schools not to only teach students about astronomy, but also to let them experience how fun science can be.
Accompanying Dr. Pendleton was Dr. Tae Min Kim, a KAIST student who is working under a postdoctoral program created by KAIST with NASA Ames Research Center. This is now his second year working with his mentor at NASA Ames, Dr. Terry Fong, and his current work involves computer visualization and imaging the Moon. With NASA’s support, he has been given many opportunities for research, and he is regarded as a success of the newly established KAIST/Ames postdoctoral program.
Can you briefly introduce yourself?
My name is Yvonne Pendleton and I am currently the Director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute. I’ve been working at NASA Ames since July 1979 and I’ve come to Korea to interview students at KAIST regarding the postdoctoral program being developed jointly by KAIST and NASA Ames Research Center in California.
Could you explain more about this postdoctoral program you are in charge of?
Three years ago president Nam P. Suh and Center Director Dr. S. Pete Worden decided to develop a postdoctoral opportunity for KAIST graduates to obtain experience in NASA research projects. I was put in charge of the program on the NASA Ames side, and KAIST associate vice president Dr. Yongtaek Im has been my counterpart. We have worked very closely together to find the optimal program for both KAIST and NASA. After recieiving a list of areas we at Ames are most interested in pursuing, Prof. Im selects candidates for me to interview. I come to South Korea each year, in the fall, to attend the wonderful International Presidential Forum. During that trip, I interview students from KAIST and find someone whose studies match what we do at NASA Ames, in an area that is open to joint research contributions. We look for graduates who are willing and determined to succeed, as they are the ones who will benefit the most from our program. Annually we pick an average of one or two students, depending on how many KAIST can support and how many good matches we find with NASA’s work. I then try to find the most suitable mentor for the student. The student receives financial support from KAIST for one year and is then given an opportunity to earn a further two years of support from NASA through the NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) sponsored by Oakridge Associated Universitites (ORAU; www.orau.org). If the postdoc passes the competitive, peer reviewed process and is offered the NPP, the candidates can get further support up to three additional years.
South Korea is also an international affiliate partner with the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI). A postdoctoral fellow who is working on lunar related research can therefore also participate as one of the international members of teams consisting of 15 to 30 students who come together over the Internet monthly to discuss lunar research. There are seven domestic lunar science teams in the U.S. and 6 international affiliate partners. The central headquarters for the NASA Lunar Science Institute is located at NASA Ames Research Center in California. The advantage of this opportunity is that the students can come together to think about discoveries, discuss topics and share ideas.
What kind of people do you look for the postdoctoral program?
[Dr. Pendleton] We look for the most promising students who would benefit the most from the program, while giving something back to NASA in the process, to set up an effective, symbiotic relationship. An excellent example of someone with the “right stuff” is Dr. Tae Min Kim, from KAIST professor Kwon’s group. He is a hard working person who benefits greatly from the program, while contributing to NASA as well. I would like for him to tell you, in his own words, what he is doing at NASA Ames.
[Dr. Kim] I’m currently working on a multiple view correlator for lunar orbital imagery, which is about building three dimensional images of the Moon. During my undergraduate years, I studied bio-systems at Seoul National University. When I graduated, I thought about applying the computer vision skills I learnt to engineer something else. Computer vision allows computers to recognize and construct an object with tons of images. Since there are already a gigantic database of images of the Moon, I thought, why can’t we build a three dimensional model of the Moon using pair-wise images, just like how our brain forms three dimensional images in our minds? I realized that by using the method I proposed, we could apply it to imaging other bodies as well, such as asteroids. Eventually, I became absorbed in this area, which was unexpected, especially because it’s completely different from my original major.
[Dr. Pendleton] One thing that especially appealed to us about Tae Min when we picked him for the postdoctoral program was that he had found a way to explore and appreciate a little known area of study, and by applying new methods to engineering, bring about a revolutionary possibility. This unique and flexible mindset was one of the qualities that allowed him to stand out from the rest of the candidates. Also, as he is a hard worker, has had an excellent background from KAIST, and is working with a very good mentor at Ames,, he is a great success. This year, he will also be speaking to some of the KAIST students about the advantages of the postdoctoral opportunity and will share some of the experience he gained over the last two years. He will also accompany me to the Taejon Christian International School where we will speak to 650 students, conducting a robotic technology and science lesson for them. They will be connected, over the internet, to a rover back at NASA Ames which they can drive, with Taemin’s guidance.
With your experience as an educator, did you urge your own children to study science?
To both my daughter and son, I often told them, “Find your passion.” I believe that in doing this, they can find a life with great meaning for them, whether or not it is in science. I did insist that they learn science, however, because everyone should understand the world around them as much as possible.
Currently, my children are in areas which are, unlike my husband and I, not science-related. My daughter is attending the School of Divinity at Yale because she is passionate about helping women and children who live in poverty in third world nations. My son is an animator at San Francisco State University, and as a graduate, hopes to pursue his hobby of drawing and animating cartoons. Both of them had their hobbies since they were children and I’m happy that they have found their passion and are following it. When my daughter was only fourteen years old, she asked me to take her to a women’s rights effort in California. I was surprised that she organized the whole event herself in order to do what she believes in. Also, in my son’s senior year in high school, I found one of his own self-drawn cartoon books. I had no idea that he had been making the book, and it was a surprise to me that his works were of such high quality! Now others are recognizing the potential both have in these fields which evoke such passion within them, and I am very proud.
I think that everyone should find their passion and pursue it. In doing so, they can contribute to society and enjoy themselves at the same time.
Is there anything else you would like to say to the readers?
One thing I would like to emphasize is, “take on challenges, and don’t take the easy way out.” In the long run, it’s hard work that leads to success, no matter the field you select.
You should work hard to succeed, as in the end you are looking for a career, not a job. Life has no guarantees, but if you are lucky enough to do what you want to do as a career, you will find life far more satisfying than doing what you regard as just a job. I see many people not enjoying the jobs they have and detesting the need to go back to work, but for me, as I am doing what I like, and I look forward to going to work. I am having a great time. I wish for students everywhere to keep this in mind, and not settle for the easier path.
Another suggestion I would like to make, and this seems to be true especially for women, is toget a Ph.D. if you can. Although it may seem unnecessary, this makes a huge difference, especially in science. Basically, having a Ph.D. often levels the playing field in a world that can still be discriminating towards women and minorities. It doesn’t remove prejudice, but sometimes it opens a door that would otherwise stay shut. Once you get in, it is up to you to prove yourself worthy. In a sense, that is exactly what the KAIST-Ames postdoctoral program is doing for graduates such as Dr. Kim. By offering him the opportunity to demonstrate his abilities, he is building a future for himself that will be significant. This is an excellent reflection on the outstanding training KAIST provides.