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Innovation at NASA

Miniaturized Instruments in Space

NASA has been in the news a lot recently, and one of our own Honors students has some unexpected connections to the space program! A senior in Physics and Mathematics, Gabe Richardson is also an employee at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in the Pathways Program. When we caught up to Gabe recently, it was clear the skills he has obtained as an undergraduate in the Honors Program helped prepare him for some unique opportunities. Today he is preparing to defend his Honors Thesis, “Computational Methods for a Miniature Quantum Dot Spectrometer,” a project involving miniaturized instrumentation -- an essential component of space exploration.

Spectrometers are important science instruments for understanding light-matter interactions, whether that be in relation to determining food quality or in understanding the chemical composition of a planet’s atmosphere. The Quantum Dot Spectrometer (QDS) allows this instrumentation to be miniaturized to a scale previously impossible (from about the size of a toaster to the size of a quarter and getting smaller). Gabe learned about the QDS project in 2019 when he attended a presentation about the technology while he was working at NASA.

At the time, his work focused on developing high reflecting mirrors for spacecraft optical systems. He was so fascinated by the possible benefits of the QDS that he approached the Principal Investigator to see if there was any way that he could get involved. To his surprise, she was looking to add a student to her team with Gabe’s particular skill set in optical fabrication and testing. They arranged for Gabe to work on the QDS project a little bit while he was back at BYU, and then full time when he returned to NASA the next summer.

Then of course, the Coronavirus pandemic hit and Gabe found himself unable to work at NASA in person in the summer of 2020. Fortunately, he had also developed a skill set in scientific programming, so his responsibilities were able to shift rather smoothly toward developing programs and algorithms that help the QDS achieve high-resolution functionality. This brought unique challenges and opportunities, but Gabe says that he would not have changed anything if he had the same opportunity again.

Gabe’s work has been fundamental to the progress of the QDS. The image analysis and mathematical spectrum reconstruction programs that he developed have improved greatly on the previous performance of the QDS.

This has been a priceless and critical opportunity for Gabe. For anyone looking to find a role like this one, he advises, “Do not underestimate the power of finding the right people at the right time and working hard to gain others’ trust and confidence. Had I not taken Physics 220 with my research advisor Dr. Allred, I never would have started the research that I ended up doing at NASA. I had expressed my goal of working at NASA with Dr. Allred, and he put me in touch with my first NASA mentor. While I was at NASA, I continued to meet more people that have had an important impact on my life. I am so grateful for the amazing friendships that have taken me to a place that I previously only dreamed of.”

Gabe said the lure of the Unexpected Connections courses first drew him into the Honors Program. He says, “A friend from my major was telling me about the Unexpected Connections course that he was taking at the time. The idea of bringing two unrelated subjects together in one amazing course sounded so interesting, and at the time I was yearning for more genuine learning outside of my major. It turned out that the Honors Program was exactly what I was looking for!”

The Unexpected Connections courses may have drawn him in, but his experiences in these classes, in Honors 320, and on the Honors Student Leadership Council have all kept him in Honors. He considers them all his “favorite part” of his Honors experience. He has appreciated each opportunity because they have allowed him to work outside of his comfort zone and learn some treasured life lessons. Gabe says that because he was encouraged to make connections, he developed skills outside of his traditional skill set, especially writing, which he has learned to love. On the Honors Student Leadership Council, he gained interpersonal and leadership skills that have helped him to understand how to progress as a team. These are lessons and experiences that he is excited to continue cultivating into graduate school and throughout his career.

The Honors Program has enabled him to be successful in his field of work as well. Gabe explains, “Curiosity is a necessity working at NASA as we work to solve some of the hardest problems. The Honors focus on interdisciplinary thinking has helped maintain my curious mind and continue to love learning many kinds of new ideas. These new ideas create pathways for creativity and innovation in solving hard problems.”

Gabe Richardson is a Physics and Mathematics Double-Major graduating this April. He grew up half in La Mesa, California and half in Provo, attending high school right up the road from BYU at Timpview High School. Shortly after graduating from Timpview, he went on a mission to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where he learned to love the kind people in the mountains of Central America. He returned from his mission the day before school began and jumped head first into studying physics. He has always had a passion for science and math, and after his mission he knew that he wanted to make the world a better place by developing impactful technology. While studying physics, he developed an interest and love for studying light and its applications. Now, he is excited to spend his career finding new ways that light can change the world. Exploration has always captivated his interest, which is why he naturally gravitates toward the exploration of both space and the ocean. He even wrote his Great Questions essay about the human quest to explore the unknown. During his tenure as an undergraduate student, Gabe has co-authored six journal publications, presented twice at international research conferences, and is a recipient of the Honors Student Leadership Award. Outside of his academic pursuits and passions, he loves any-and-all water activities, riding his bike around new places, and “nerding out” over a well-made backpack. He has lots of dreams for the future, and is looking forward to doing as many of the amazing things that life has to offer as he can.