Trailblazer of the Week
21 August 2020
Liberty Locsin was working as a secretary near Huntington Hospital when two engineers approached her desk at the dialysis center. They asked her for directions to JPL.
“I didn’t know where JPL was or that it was even affiliated with NASA,” says Locsin, a web development intern for the Lunar Trailblazer mission. “Thinking about it, it didn’t sit well with me that this was my experience. I have lived 20 minutes away from JPL and Caltech for most of my life, and I only learned that now?”
Locsin then enrolled at Pasadena City College (PCC) where she embarked on studying computer science. After taking courses taught by JPL staff and astronomy researchers who worked on NASA’s Voyager program, Locsin says she felt a kind of bittersweet bewilderment.
“This amazement did not come without the disappointment that I was not exposed to this earlier in life,” she says. “I can thank the PCC faculty, especially the physics department. Hearing about their research was pretty inspiring and made it seem not so distant.”
Once Locsin understood that there was indeed a chance for her in these STEM fields, she firmly pursued her goals.
“I wanted to become a person I wish I met as a little girl: someone who tells people about science and that it is happening right in your backyard, someone who does outreach and connects people to STEM,” she says. “Taking classes was not meant to master test taking, but to teach us universal science concepts we can apply to solve problems greater than ourselves.”
Keeping momentum, Locsin became the vice president and then president of the PCC physics and astronomy club, promoting academic and community engagement. Though she’s transferring from PCC this fall, she is still very much committed to the club’s activities.
“I am still an officer and hope to be a remote advisor, should the club need guidance,” says Locsin. “I am proud of the club and our ability to expose community college students to scientific research. Our members visited Caltech’s cosmology lab and Kavli Nanoscience Institute, and built a website to involve even more students. I scheduled JPL engineers and Caltech scholars to conduct science talks- we hosted up to nine in one semester. I felt like those talks had a big impact on the students. We brought science and science outreach to my community college.”
In addition to bridging what can often be wide gaps between STEM students and possible research opportunities or job training, Locsin is also focused on eliminating the stigma surrounding community colleges’ academic rigor and credibility. She feels that most community colleges are unfairly perceived as lacking educational distinction.
“After we transfer, some of us have to face stigma from more prestigious universities,” she explains. “One reason is because students don't know the facility, and another is the stigma we carry as community college students. Many of us don't come from families with a lot of resources who had experience in the American college system. For a lot of students, it's hard to even conceive of applying for an internship involving research. Despite this, I think students should search and apply for internships. Yes, it is an extra step, but they can persevere. While four-year college undergraduates have more institutional opportunities at the start, community college students with research experience took more initiative to find opportunities and have overcome their situation.”
When she first saw the posting for the Lunar Trailblazer internship, Locsin recognized it was with Caltech and broadly involved a lunar mission of some sort. Seeing that the internship was specifically geared toward community college students is what really caught her attention. She applied immediately.
“My friends were playing tennis and I typically went to play with them. I didn't have much time, so I remember watching them and typing out my application,” she recalls. “When I told my parents that I got the internship, they didn't know what it was or that Caltech was even a school. They are immigrants who typically do not get exposed to the idea of research. They still ask me when I am getting a real job. The disconnect is very deeply rooted.”
Locsin further reflects on how existing income inequality had initially discouraged her outlook of obtaining any kind of career in a STEM field.
“Long story short, after learning about this work, I did want to do it,” says Locsin. “I had not considered it in the past because I felt like it was something "chosen" people from upper to middle class families did, and I was not "chosen." For a long time, I loved space, but it felt like a distant dream with no path to reality. How does one find out about this path?”
Next it was the literal coding paths set before Locsin that would soon prove to be as much of a challenge to navigate in their own right. Having surmounted a systemic class divide, the Trailblazer internship quickly ushered her onto the team where she was tasked with rendering code for building part of Trailblazer’s website. There was no template; it would have to be a job from scratch.
“The challenging part of web development is there is actually a lot of bad or incomplete documentation,” Locsin says. “Don't get me wrong, there is good documentation, too, but you sometimes need to dig for it. There are a lot of ways to do similar things, but not get exactly what you want, and that can be confusing. You really cannot underestimate this, which I did at first.”
“For a while, I didn’t necessarily understand the role a computer scientist plays in a team with scientists or engineers. I had a title but what did it mean?” Locsin contemplates. “I was hoping there would be room to do something more technical with data and I would be some protector or manipulator of data. Computer science implies science, but if you notice, geology, physics, chemistry and biology are all sciences but do not have the word “science” in them. What is that about? I think what it means, partly, is we work on code, make websites and deal with the software so scientists can focus on their science.”
In addition to participating in the wireframe design, Locsin channeled her own scientific interests to successfully design and construct a virtual timeline of historic lunar events. She shares how much she enjoyed contextualizing the Lunar Trailblazer mission as the legacy of humanity’s collective effort to study the Moon.
“The fulfilling part was reading all the facts the science team provided and populating them in the timeline,” says Locsin. “I really like space history and used to watch YouTube channels where they would go into The Royal Society archive to pull out items involved in the space race. Also, it was fun adding 3D models to the website.”
Locsin was also impressed to discover the sheer scope of a science mission like Lunar Trailblazer.
“Being around the science team was pretty exciting,” she says. “In some strange way, I feel like I am backstage watching the mission unfold. Usually, you only hear about a mission when they've discovered something or collected some data. Those get all the headlines. Rarely do you see the beginning stages, or the motivations for a mission and how to get there. There is so much work, planning and discussion that goes into shaping a mission. There is a review process for almost every detail, and it's quite a long journey.”
Since she had never seen a research team at work and didn’t necessarily understand how they all collaborated, Locsin admits she may have had a few preconceived notions.
“Maybe I had a false impression of what a scientist is,” reflects Locsin. “Some super arrogant genius who knows everything and argues a lot? That was totally wrong — a false image created by popular media. Bethany Ehlmann, Jay Dickson and Jasper were very friendly and excited about the project. I often asked for advice and feedback from Jasper and he was really patient with me. While I don't claim to know everyone intimately, from what I noticed they are very personable, humble, and speak to all team members, including myself, very respectfully. They take great care in what they say and get straight to the point. Their goal is to produce new science and push forth toward that goal. They are also very precise in the way they perceive credit and very inclusive in recognizing all other scientific contributions.”
Her internship may have passed, but between working hours Locsin stays sharp.
“A lot of my hobbies are like hacker rank coding practice with a friend, or AI podcasts,” she says. “I recently found a cool page about machine learning research called Papers with Code. I don't consider it work since I don't really get paid to learn it.”
Locsin now muses on both personal growth and scientific progress.
“How did I even get here?” she reflects. “What will the forefront of space exploration look like in a year's time? What else needs to be discovered? I think the work of a scientist, especially in space, is very inspiring. I really appreciate their work in helping us learn about our universe.”
Liberty Locsin was a computer science student at Pasadena City College and the web development intern for Lunar Trailblazer. You can follow her on Twitter.
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.