Trailblazer of the Week

Marcos Perez

9 October 2020

Marcos Perez was literally staring into space when his natural curiosity took the wheel.

“I have a distinct memory from when I was about five years old of my parents driving home at night from grocery shopping,” says Perez. “I stared out the window as telephone poles and street lights zoomed past us, but the Moon appeared to be still in the night sky, as if it were following our car. Now I know that the Earth-Moon distance is so much larger than the distance travelled by my parent’s car that the Moon’s parallax is negligible. However, for a long time this seemed very mysterious. That sense of wonder about how things in nature occur is incredibly exciting, and it is this feeling that drives me to study science and conduct research.”

Now as an undergraduate student in his second year at Caltech, Perez is actively pursuing that same sense of wonder as a Lunar Trailblazer intern. In February of 2020, he reached out to Professor Bethany Ehlmann, Lunar Trailblazer’s principal investigator, to ask if he could conduct research over the summer as part of her group at Caltech.

“Luckily, she said yes and mentioned Lunar Trailblazer,” Perez says. “She had explained the potential for a project combining data that different orbiters had already collected to map where water ice may exist on the Moon’s surface.”

He happily accepted the opportunity.

“I’ve been ecstatic since day one,” he says. “I find it surreal to discuss my job with others, since I didn’t expect to work as part of a mission this early in my research career, but I am excited to be able to do so. I am very grateful for the inclusion of interns within Lunar Trailblazer.”

As a GIS intern, Perez’s day-to-day typically consists of writing scripts in Python to do statistics, making maps with the geological software tool ArcGIS, and reading published research related to previous lunar orbiters and the Moon’s surface. He also attends weekly meetings with the science team for Lunar Trailblazer and the Ehlmann Research Group.

“I make maps that have helped select science targets, which are locations on the Moon’s surface that are of key interest to study during the mission,” Perez explains. “These are compiled and communicated to NASA HQ to explain how Lunar Trailblazer will accomplish its science goals.”

Perez notes how exciting it has been thus far to conduct original scientific research.

“It’s hard not to feel something special while helping uncover a new aspect of nature that can help us explore the cosmos,” he says. “I love doing scientific research. I’m thankful for the opportunity to help answer some fundamental questions that can help enable future manned and robotic exploration of our nearest neighbor.”

Perez was born in Los Angeles, but most of his family is from Mexico. He credits his grandfather with instilling in him a strong sense of purpose in life, regardless of subject matter or career.

“My grandfather had always encouraged me to pursue my interest in science,” says Perez. “We always enjoyed playing chess and he would frequently ask me what I wanted to do when I grow up. My answer has changed over the years, but it has consistently been related to science, and he would always tell me that he had come to the United States to offer his children and grandchildren the safety and opportunity to pursue a life and a career they would forge for themselves. He showed me the value of pursuing what one enjoys, for which I am deeply grateful.”

Perez was also lucky to have encouragement from his teachers to provide further inspiration.

“I became obsessed with astronomy in high school. I would be remiss to not mention Altair Maine, my wonderful science teacher who helped introduce me to stargazing, a cherished hobby that helped show me my passion for planetary science,” says Perez.

Such familial and academic support has certainly been transformative for Perez, but getting to this point in his career has sometimes been an uphill journey. Whatever the challenge, Perez approaches it like a marathon, not a sprint.

“It’s more than worth pursuing what you enjoy,” he says. "It can be difficult, but a seemingly long, difficult education is worth the dream job you can do the rest of your life. Perseverance in the face of adversity is invaluable for the future.”

Actually, Perez is used to clearing hurdles. He competes as part of Caltech's intercollegiate track and field team, and also works as part of the Academics and Research Committee. Getting involved in Caltech’s undergraduate athletic teams and helping to construct events held between the undergraduate houses has been particularly rewarding. While the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted in-person classes and extracurricular activities, Perez still enjoys hiking and competing as part of the cross country and track and field teams.

“Nowadays, to social distance, I do these more independently, but still keep in touch with teammates and coaches,” he says.

While classes will continue to be taught virtually until at least 2021, Perez maintains the outlook that working closely with other people and networking- even at a physical distance- is still significant.

“Reach out to instructors and more advanced peers,” says Perez. “It is important to build a network of people you can work with and learn from. Science and engineering don’t happen purely in a vacuum, you will need people you can work with as well as learn from. Additionally, scholarships have enabled many people to pursue higher education, and anyone considering attending university shouldn’t be afraid to pursue financial aid.”

Perez notes how such enthusiasm and work ethic has led him to be a part of Lunar Trailblazer’s groundbreaking research.

“I'm excited to have the opportunity to have an internship in this field,” says Perez. “I can wake up everyday and work on data analysis for the exploration of our Moon, and I can't help but smile when I think about that.”

Marcos Perez is an undergraduate Caltech student and GIS intern for Lunar Trailblazer.
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.