Trailblazer of the Week

Hongyu Cui

28 August 2020

It was actually by mere coincidence that Hongyu Cui came to be an intern involved with the Lunar Trailblazer mission. As an international student from China studying user interface design at Pasadena City College (PCC), Cui thought her status as a visiting student automatically disqualified her from applying to Trailblazer’s internship program.

“I first heard about this opportunity when I was helping a student in the digital art lab who tried to prepare her resume to apply for this job,” Cui says. “By the time I noticed that the internship also accepted international students to apply, it was the deadline day. I packaged all my information and materials as much as I could, and sent them to the dean at one minute past the deadline.”

Needless to say, Cui was delighted when she was offered the position.

“I remember I was screaming like a little girl in front of the school cafe when I got the offer!” she fondly recalls.

For the internship, Cui was commissioned to create graphic elements visualizing lunar water-ice within Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) at the Moon’s poles. To date, not even scientists know what water specifically looks like at these near-ninety degree latitudes that are shrouded in perpetual darkness. Conceptualizing and spatially rendering the ice hidden inside of the Moon’s polar craters has required one part data-driven speculation and equal parts creativity.

“Well, the existence of water on the Moon was discovered about ten years ago,” explains Cui. “However, during the past decade all of the water was represented only by two-dimensional blue dots or blue puddles. Nobody has actually seen the water, so there is no existing graphic reference at all, which brought me huge challenges.”

Cui’s attempt to accurately represent this visual phenomena was also met by the additional hurdle of effectively communicating the science. Her graphics would need to be accessible to both scientists and general audiences alike, conveying the structural dimension and scientific significance of water in PSRs.

“In order to cope with the challenges during the creating process, I did a lot of visual research, viewed online tutorials, and consulted my professors at PCC who were all very supportive,” says Cui. “My basic day of work usually started with visual research or explorations for finding better methods to generate the image of the water-ice.”

Tasked with capturing the three-dimensional nature and photorealistic quality of water-ice meant hours of digitally sketching draft upon draft, modifying building techniques, and working deliberately with the science team. Cui notes she is particularly grateful for the guidance she received from fellow Trailblazers and the mission’s principal investigator, Bethany Ehlmann.

“I would say the most inspiring thing was working with Bethany,” shares Cui. “She is strict to scientific details, and I remember how she patiently explained to me how the scientists discovered the water-ice, helping me better comprehend my subject. Working within the team of other PCC students also allowed me to learn from all these excellent people.”

Concluding the internship, Cui produced a portfolio documenting the evolution of her graphics, and included her personal reflections at each stage. She faced certain challenges during this laborious process, but this drove her determination all the more.

“I enjoy nailing the puzzles and finding ways to produce images faster and more accurately,” says Cui. “I have to say, it was quite satisfying when I completed the work which no one actually had done before.”

Cui has been in medical equipment sales back in China for about seven years, and only began her studies at PCC as a design major three years ago. When her school schedule is not too demanding, she likes to play ukulele and sing, and partake in some classic Los Angeles sight-seeing. As it happens, her interest in astronomy became an emergent theme while living in Southern California.

“My favorite place in Los Angeles is the Griffith Observatory,” she says. “I have been there eight times just to see the big telescope.”

Cui further reflects on how following her love of astronomy aligned serendipitously with her Trailblazer internship.

“It was an inevitable mission for me,” says Cui. “I love astronomy so much that I was taking an astronomy class during the same term I became an intern for Lunar Trailblazer. To be honest, when I asked two of my friends whether I should take the course, both of them rejected my plan. It is quite common for the Chinese to suggest you not take "useless" courses. But I took the course with no regrets, the same way I did for this mission.”

Looking back, Cui’s bold deviation from the norm led her to a fulfilling internship that became much more than just a visual sample of her design portfolio.

“It was a great honor for me to be part of this exciting program, especially as this is one of the important phases for humans reaching Mars, and as the very first international student at PCC who participated in this off-campus internship,” she says. “I feel I am super lucky. I am very grateful I had this golden opportunity and appreciate all the professors who kindly walked me through this experience. I am so happy I was able to be “on the train.” If given the chance, I would always want to do this job. Yes, I would.”

Hongyu Cui is a design student at Pasadena City College and the graphic design intern for Lunar Trailblazer. She’s our Trailblazer of the Week, and you can see her final product of water-ice here and her artistic process here.
Trailblazer of the Week is an ongoing series showcasing the diversity of experience and expertise that supports the collective determination of the Lunar Trailblazer mission.

By Emily Felder
Emily Felder is a Pasadena City College student and Caltech intern working on science communication for the Lunar Trailblazer mission.