Thomas I. Valdez

Senior Member Engineering Staff - Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Where are you from? (Hometown)

I was raised in East Los Angeles, Calif. I now reside in Covina, Calif.

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

The first time I made a connection with outer space was when I was in elementary school. We were learning about the Space Shuttle during its maiden voyage. And after teaching us about the Space Shuttle and space travel, my teacher asked us to draw a picture about what we had learned and how we felt about outer space. I still have the picture I drew to this day.

How did you end up working in the space program?

I was very lucky to have been selected to work in the space program right out of high school. This is how it happened -- two incredible recruiters from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory came to my high school to interview students, and I was selected. I have worked at JPL ever since.

What is a Senior Member Engineering Staff, Fuel Cell Group Lead?

My research focus is in catalyst development for fuel cells and electrolyzers. I also design fuel cell systems for robotic and terrestrial applications. The importance of developing a fuel cell power source for robotic applications is that a fuel cell can increase the energy a robot can carry during a mission. The advantage of a fuel cell power source for terrestrial applications is that the power source can be designed to have energy densities many times greater than batteries.

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

It seems that every year I have another favorite moment at work. One of my most memorable moments was the first time I presented my research at a technical conference as a professional.

One recent memorable moment has been working on a fuel cell system for the JPL ATHLETE robot. The ATHLETE robot traveled 1 km on fuel cell power. It was incredible to see the successful completion of this milestone.

Another recent memorable moment was the building and launch of a power source for an ocean profiler named Solo-TREC. (Solo-TREC is a sea probe that measures water salinity and temperature in the ocean and profiles these parameters from the surface of the ocean to about 500 m in depth.) What makes the Solo-TREC special, besides being the first probe of its kind, is that it harvests energy from temperature differences in the ocean.

Who inspired you?

I have been inspired in different ways by my teachers and mentors. Mr. Art Callahan, my junior high school science teacher, inspired me to fall in love with science and scientific investigations. Mr. Jaime Escalante, my high school math teacher, taught me how to work hard and never give up. (I owe my career to Mr. Escalante; he gave me the tools I needed to be successful in science.) And my mentor Dr. S. R. Narayan, who is my inspiration in science, helped develop my love for electrochemistry.

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

Enjoy every opportunity you have to learn and make it a point to be involved in the most challenging projects. Approach every problem with a smile and a positive attitude.

What do you do for fun?

I head to the beach during the summer and I like to ski in the local mountains during the winter. I also enjoy hiking, running and mountain bike riding all year round.

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

The advice I give students is to form a good understanding of the problems they are working on. In order to develop a fun career in science, math or engineering it takes a little discipline when you are young. Establishing good fundamentals is crucial to developing a fun career in any discipline.

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Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.