Dr. John here…
On the list of things I’ll never be talented or smart enough to do, pole vaulting and designing satellites for space missions rank right at the top. And I’m not even sure which I’d be worse at.
Such is not the case for my friend, Dan Kwon, a collegiate pole vaulter at MIT who is now an Aerospace Engineer researching new types of space missions and designing satellites. Dan designs everything from how the satellite is launched to how the satellite delivers data back to mission control.
In the Q&A below, you’ll learn how Star Wars (not surprisingly) helped turn Dan on to science, technology engineering, and math (STEM) careers, as well as his thoughts on balancing athletics and education. I can almost promise you that you’ll learn a completely new word: “sabermetrics”.
All it takes is a few questions to start challenging stereotypes about scientists, engineers, and cheerleaders. Dan, thanks again for taking the time to join on us Science Cheerleader!
Which team(s) did you play for and when?
I’m active in track and field in pole vault, long and triple jump, and 100m for the DC area Potomac Valley Track Club. I also play outfield for various slow pitch softball teams in the Fairfax Adult softball leagues and soccer in Sterling. I’m since retired from ice hockey, football, and ultimate.
Who or what experience turned you on to science and engineering?
Star Wars and Star Trek have more influence than I’d like to admit. Going to planetariums and science museums as a kid also made me realize that there’s a universe out there worth exploring.
Do you have any advice for youngsters who might feel torn between following one dream associated with beauty or physique (cheerleading, baseball, etc) and following a STEM career usually associated with, well, geeks?
While I do believe there is a societal value in entertainment, I feel that a STEM career has a chance to touch and influence lives in a greater extent. For example, while Tom Brady impacts my weekend fun and those in New England, STEM-related products, whether it be a water purification system or GPS satellites, an aerospace product, can impact people in Africa, China, and also those Patriot fans in New England.
While in college or high school, how did you balance education with athletics?
Balancing mind and soul is not only good for health reasons, it was a good way to get a moral boost. If I had a great math test, I ended up enjoying a usually brutal track workout. If I did well at a meet, it fueled my desire to excel on a homework set. Positive vibes are cyclical.
How big of role can citizens without formal scientific training play in real scientific research?
Today, with open source groups and crowd-sharing gaining popularity, it’s very easy for citizens to make impacts. While the scientific community you might be interested is initially intimating, remember the newbies will eventually be the ones making contributions, if the passion and desire continue.
Can you identify any non-traditional ways that you’ve seen science or engineering applied in a professional setting?
Nowadays you’re seeing the infusion of more science and engineering related tools and mindsets into sports with “sabermetrics” (basically, studying baseball through objective evidence). People with math background can make an impact on teams. I think people who learn even basic scientific tools, like the scientific method, can easily go to industries other than just science and make immediate impacts.
Wildest engineering moment?
I was pressure testing a pipe I built to cool superconductors, when the top blew off, narrowly missing my head and denting the ceiling. Two weeks later, my experiment worked proving a 3 year hypothesis. The swings of critical injury to long awaited success are similar to valleys and peaks I’m sure other scientists share.
Favorite and/or least favorite courses you took to prepare for your work?
Not everything comes easy at MIT. I’ve received test scores that start with every single digit, from scores in the 10’s, 20’s, 30’s, all the way to the 90’s and 100. Yes, this also includes a 0 on a test that I actually studied for, took, and didn’t get a single thing correct.