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An Interview with Yang Zheng

Photo of Yang Zheng

Where are you from?

Beijing, China.

What did you want to be growing up?

I wanted to be a teacher in elementary school. I thought that I would be a nice teacher and give out very little homework to my students.

Where did you go to school?

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

What kind of student were you?

I was a slightly disruptive student during 1st and 2nd grade since I was very active and did things like whistle in class. I became a pretty good student after the 2nd grade though.

What was the best class you ever took and why?

My favorite class was astronomy. I have always been fascinated with the stars and how the universe came to be. It's amazing how much we have learned about those tiny dots in the sky through the technology we developed.

What is your degree in?

I have both Master's and Bachelor's degrees in Electrical Engineering.

When did you decide to pursue a career in the sciences?

By high school. I was better at math and science than english and social studies, so I thought engineering would be a good fit. My dad was also an engineer so that had some influence over me too. Finally I wanted a career that I can make a good living out of and support myself.

Where have you worked?

I worked briefly as a cashier at Panda Express in high school. During college I interned at Lucent Technologies and Intel.

How and when did you start working at JPL?

I started at JPL in 2002 after I had an on-campus interview. Like I said earlier, I really liked astronomy so JPL being involved with NASA and space exploration really pulled me in. The Pasadena area is really nice. I like having the mountains nearby and seeing the deers around lab too. I first worked in the Flight Systems Simulation group, on ground support test equipment. Our team created simulations of hardware before they were actually built in order to test flight software.

What is your job title?

UAVSAR operational processor lead.

What do you do at your job?

I take the core algorithm code and make sure they run well with thousands of data collections. I make sure that the day to day processing works smoothly.

What is the coolest/most enjoyable part of your job?

Going out on deployment with the UAVSAR. My favorite deployment was Iceland - we went there to study glacier motion to create 3D vector models. I've never seen glaciers before and there is a glacial lagoon there called Jökulsárlón. It's the most surreal place I've ever been. I also got to walk around on hardened lava with the mission scientist and learned all about glaciers, volcanoes, and even bird life in Iceland.

Why is doing what you do important?

UAVSAR is a technology test bed for a potential spaceborne SAR mission. We do not have a space SAR and hopefully this mission will be able to provide the experience and information we need to create one. The data we collect is valuable to many different scientists who study earthquakes, landslides, glaciers, volcanoes, vegetation, etc. They can use our data to better understand the earth and how it changes, which will help us create a better picture of what is going on in our world today and what could happen in the future.