Trailblazer of the Week
11 December 2020
If you had asked Winnie Wei Jeng what she thought about working on a space mission two years ago, she probably would have said it’s a nice idea—for someone else. Yet in the late fall of 2019, she became Lunar Trailblazer’s first student intern to assist with Geographic Information Systems (GIS), creating a database to view the Moon.
“Since having worked with the people on the Lunar Trailblazer team who have so much passion and strong visions for possibilities beyond Earth, I began to yearn for more research, investigations, and missions that would help us conquer space!” says Jeng, only partially in jest.
Jeng was originally born in Taipei, Taiwan and moved to the United States in middle school.
“I enjoyed the care-free and quirky urban culture of Taipei while growing up,” she says.
After settling in the US and attending high school, Jeng went on to UC Berkeley where she completed her first bachelor’s degree in English. Following her graduation in 2016, she worked at the Apple Store in Pasadena where she became intrigued by computer science. She then decided to enroll at Pasadena City College (PCC) to learn about the science and theory behind the electronic devices she handled every day.
“My passion for computer science substantiated when I made the connection that the fundamental math and physics that I learned in classes have real implications in propelling technology forward,” says Jeng.
Once at PCC, Jeng joined the Astronomy and Physics club. That’s when she became interested in astrophysics and began participating in local STEM competitions.
“I also joined a NASA aerospace scholar program and participated in a robotics competition and helped my team win first place,” she says.
These competitions were a great learning opportunity, but Jeng didn’t have a specific career plan before joining the Lunar Trailblazer mission. Prior to applying, Jeng had been a math and computer science tutor on campus. But she wanted to study something a little different than just those classes that met major requirements. Through the recommendation of a friend, Jeng enrolled in an Introduction to Geographic Information Systems class and learned about geodata processing.
“The introductory GIS course equipped me with the foundational skills of navigating a GIS software,” says Jeng. “I also learned how to build Python scrapers to query online data, and then put those data into an SQL database for building web maps.”
Then while attending a STEM event on campus, Jeng was informed of the Lunar Trailblazer mission’s student internship collaboration between Caltech and PCC. Lunar Trailblazer’s Principal Investigator Bethany Ehlmann was specifically looking to bring on students with GIS proficiency to assist in the development of data visualization tools for mapping water on the Moon’s surface. Jeng applied for the internship hoping she could demonstrate her newly acquired GIS skills to building those tools that would eventually render the very first maps of lunar water.
“I first heard about the Lunar Trailblazer mission from an information session at PCC’s Math, Engineering, Science, Achievement Center from Dr. Martha House,” Jeng recalls. “I submitted my application soon after and got a call from Bethany, who interviewed me and eventually let me on the team.”
Jeng notes that her GIS internship was not very similar to her classroom experience in that the Moon data was provided by Caltech scientist and Trailblazer co-investigator Jay Dickson, eliminating the need to do all the searching herself. The real challenge lay in mapping those data onto a three-dimensional web-based globe.
While the internship presented myriad challenges, Jeng met them.
“The biggest breakthrough in my progress of the project was figuring out the arithmetics that orient the images in order and right-side-up,” explains Jeng.
Another breakthrough for Jeng came in the form of mentorship. Working closely with Ehlmann and Dickson provided her with a new kind of professional camaraderie.
“I feel like they gave me a purpose to continue in STEM because they believed in my work,” she says. “I never had professional mentors before them. In them I saw a lot of passion and compassion.”
Jeng touches on how it can be challenging for many adult students who want to go back to school as she did, start a new career, or just enroll in college for the very first time. Sometimes people don’t enroll at all because they fear it may be “too late” to do so.
“Don’t ever count yourself out!” urges Jeng. “I don't think I’m the best person for advice, but I do want to encourage more people to be in STEM. As someone who has only discovered her passion for STEM after becoming an adult, I really feel for people who have a late start in the STEM trajectory. I hope people can have exposures and develop interests when they are young, but I also hope people will not count themselves out even if they didn't start when they were young.”
Measurable or visible success is another perception Jeng wishes to destigmatize.
“I tend to stress out when I do not make perceivable progress on a project,” says Jeng. “So some advice I wish to better internalize, and wish more people could hear, is that it is okay to struggle. Once my computer science professor hollered at the class, “If you’re not struggling, you’re not learning!” Through the rinse and repeat process of struggling and learning, something was produced out of this internship.”
Outside the worthy struggle of data visualization, Jeng likes to tend to her indoor microgreen farm, grow herbs, and do small Arduino projects with her boyfriend. Looking back, Jeng acknowledges how working on Trailblazer planted the aspiration to build web tools for the advancement of extraterrestrial or astronomical research.
“Now, I’d like to use my skills for the advancement of extraterrestrial science or astrophysics,” says Jeng. “I hope that my future job would allow me to build web-based visualization or calculation tools for scientists to facilitate their research. The Lunar Trailblazer team led me to be in the intersection of computer science and astrophysics today, and I'm so proud to be a part of the team that works toward humanity’s endeavor for deep space exploration.”
Winnie Wei Jeng was a GIS researcher, programmer, and intern for Lunar Trailblazer and Pasadena City College student. Winnie’s map is HERE. She’s transferring to Georgia Tech in January 2021 to study computer science and is our Trailblazer of the Week!
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.