Bobak Ferdowsi

Systems Engineer - Jet Propulsion Laboratory


American School in Japan, Tokyo, Japan

University of Washington

Bachelor of Science

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Master of Science

Where are you from?

I was born in Philadelphia, but I grew up in the Bay Area for most of my childhood before moving to Japan when I was 11 years old. I still relate heavily to both Tokyo and the Bay Area, especially when it comes to sports.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

I've always had a fascination with science-fiction and space exploration, but I think the moment I realized how amazing it was came in 1997 when Pathfinder landed on the surface of Mars. Just seeing something that humans had built sitting on the surface of another planet was very awe-inspiring to me.

Also, after the landing, you could see pictures of Mars on the Internet -- not just historical NASA images found in a textbook, but nearly-live images from the surface of Mars. So incredible.

How did you end up working in the space program?

I went to college at the University of Washington in Seattle and grad school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for degrees in aerospace engineering. I was very fortunate that a grad school lab-mate of mine was hired prior to me and helped me find a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Oddly enough, my first job at JPL was on the Mars Science Laboratory mission when it was just on paper and we had a very small team working on the design.

Who inspired you?

My parents have always been very encouraging, but along the way I have also had a number of great people in my life. My elementary school math teacher, Mr. Baum, and my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Chambers, were both great guys who loved what they taught, were very good at it and were great role models.

I also have to say that two of my biggest inspirations have come from science-fiction -- from the works of Arthur C. Clarke and Star Trek.

Bobak Ferdowsi White House
Bobak Ferdowsi, a system's engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, speaks with a member of "invenTeam" at the White House Science Fair.
NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

What is a Systems Engineer?

I am a systems engineer. I like to describe it as taking the high-view of things, understanding how things interact with each other and making trades that involve multiple teams or subsystems. In a more Earth-like analogy, this is similar to making sure the screen, processor and software on your smartphone work together, and then making trades between how much the phone tries to do for a user versus how much a user has to make decisions for the phone.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

My favorite has to be landing a SUV-sized rover on the surface of Mars. (Is it even possible for another moment in my career to exceed landing a car on Mars?)

Besides that moment, I do recall a day in 2008 when we received the initial parts of what would eventually comprise the Curiosity rover. These parts were to be put together for what we call a system test. (It's a test where we have a unique opportunity to integrate all the parts of the flight vehicle together to test scenarios and functions that require multiple systems working in harmony.) There were long hours and restructuring tests and just plain making things work. It was during this time that I realized that I didn't just enjoy, but actually loved this job and that I was a valuable member of the team.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

I recommend it. It doesn't have to be my path though, or even my work. The great thing about being at NASA is that there are jobs for all types -- whether it's engineering, science, finance, communication, law, and so forth -- the list goes on. All of them are necessary and all of them involve working on some of the coolest things humans can do. So pick the area you love, but also know that you can still be a part of exploring the Universe.

Matt Damon and Bobak Ferdowsi
Boback (center right) and actor Matt Damon in the Mars Yard at JPL.
NASA/Bill Ingalls

What do you do for fun?

We're fortunate at JPL to have great weather year-round, so there is a lot of softball, hiking and biking. I also do a lot of outreach -- it's pretty great to see kids get excited about space.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

It's not always easy, but there are a lot of different areas. Try it, learn what you like and what you don't, what you're good at and what you struggle with, and choose accordingly.

Read More

I've been fortunate to work on the following projects:

Mars Curiosity

More on the robotic rover Bobak helped land on Mars in 2012.

Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.