As a young entrepreneur running his own car audio business, Quenton Bonds had the thought that someday all electronic devices people depend on daily would become wireless. Wanting to be part of future leading-edge technology transformations, Bonds decided to pursue a career in electrical engineering.
His early interest in electronics was one of several factors that took Bonds from a self-proclaimed "average" high school student with moderate interest in college, to a NASA electronics engineering researcher with a doctorate degree. Bonds' initiative earned him support from a professor who was willing to give him a chance. He worked hard and took advantage of the opportunities presented to him. Bonds earned advanced degrees in electrical engineering and participated in several NASA student projects that took him to multiple NASA centers to work and perform research. He currently is a NASA electronics engineering researcher who develops microwave sensors and instrumentation for gathering data on and about Earth.
In which NASA student opportunity project did you participate, and how did you get involved in it?
I participated in multiple student opportunities. The first three were administered through the United Negro College Fund Special Programs' collaboration with NASA. Starting in the summer of 2006, I participated in the NASA Science & Technology Initiative for Minority Serving Institutions as a summer intern at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Thereafter, I was selected as a NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellow in the fall of 2006. While a fellow, I won a mini research award through JPFP (the Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship Project) to conduct research at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., as a summer intern in 2007. Finally, in the fall of 2009, I won a fellowship through the NASA Graduate Student Research Program to complete the final year of the Ph.D. The GSRP program also entailed an internship at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland in the summer of 2010.
Explain the research you conducted through your NASA involvement, and why this topic is important.
During my first internship at Ames Research Center in the summer of 2006, I worked in the Advanced Supercomputing Division developing software-defined routers for Internet satellite communication.
The concept is to develop prototype software-defined radio routers, or SDRRs, to enable an Internet backbone for satellite communications. In theory, this technology would enable our orbital satellites to function independently, inside of their own intra-network to communicate and relay information between each other, rather than relaying the information down to congested Earth-based networks, then back up to the orbital satellites. As a result, a dedicated link will enable our geoscience instruments to relay and/or process observation data faster and more efficiently. In addition, all of the radio frequency signals are generated, modulated and processed in software; therefore, upgrades or new communication technologies can be updated via software from a remote location then uploaded to the SDRRs. This saves time and money by eliminating the need to bring down expensive satellites from orbit, perform expensive hardware upgrades and re-launch them into orbit.
From 2006 to 2009, the NASA Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship Program funded the bulk of my Ph.D. work, which involved the research and development of a noninvasive, noncontact, core body temperature sensor for astronaut health monitoring applications.
This first-generation sensor is intended for integration into the astronaut Liquid Cooling Garment to noninvasively monitor astronaut core body temperature in the improved extravehicular activity, or EVA, suit. This technology is important since transition from extreme environments during missions could lead to large differences in skin surface temperature and core body temperature. In addition, humans are not a good personal diagnostic of hazardous body temperature conditions. To achieve thermal stabilization, heat is discarded from the liquid cooling system through a network of tubes. Physiological studies have proven that the skin surface temperature alone does not provide an accurate estimate of core body temperature even with correction. Therefore, the inlet temperature of the EVA suit does not alone provide sufficient diagnostic data. As a result, sensors that measure the skin surface temperature or inlet suit temperature, such as thermistors, infrared thermometers or thermocouples, should be supplemented with additional measurement modalities, which are capable of subsurface data extraction.
The long-term goal for this work is to expand the utility of the system to a network of radiometric sensors positioned throughout the uniform of astronauts or servicemen at clinical diagnostic points (i.e., wrist-pulse, chest-heart beat, and core-body temperature) for retrieving various physiological data from the body.
As an intern at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, I worked with the Microwave Instruments and Technology Branch to develop a prototype L-Band Radiometer for Astronaut Health Monitoring. This research assistantship was a continuation of my dissertation work. Researchers from the MITB such as Dr. Paul Racette assisted me in developing the sensor I would used in my Ph.D. research for core body temperature extraction of astronauts in extreme environments. The MITB used a similar sensor/instrument in geoscience applications to retrieve soil moisture, ocean salinity, ice thickness, etc.
The concept of correlating these geoscience sensors to biomedical applications lies within the fact that both the body and Earth are comprised of mostly water. In some instances, researchers report the exact same value for the amount of water in the earth and body, 66 to 70 percent. Therefore, my goal was to redesign these geoscience sensors for biomedical applications, whereas both used radio frequency technology as the sensing mechanism.
The NASA Graduate Student Research Program funded the final year of my dissertation. This work was basically a continuation of the research conducted under the Harriett G. Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship Program involving the research and development of a Microwave Radiometer for Biomedical Sensing Application, or MRBS. One of the main objectives of this program was to also participate in an internship. My assigned location was at Glenn Research Center, where we developed a tissue-propagation model for noncoherent propagation of thermal emissions throughout the human body. This propagation model was developed to complement subsurface body temperature measurements extracted using the close proximity MRBS. Due to the fact that the physical (size, thickness) and electromagnetic (emissivity, loss, reflectivity) properties of a human tissue vary from person to person, the data extracted from the MRBS could generate higher percent error in the measurement than can be tolerated for sufficient accuracy. Therefore, this model is implemented to determine how much the measurement would vary from person to person. It serves as a mathematical formulation to offset this error, hence improving accuracy of the core body temperature measurement.
What is the most exciting part of your research?
Hands down, the most exciting component of my research is to conceptualize an idea and to see it actually work in practice. The actual design and fabrication I would say would be subsequent areas of excitement, but they can also be quite cumbersome when the design does not work. To actually get something working, and to get it working the way I initially intended, keeps me motivated.
What is your educational background, and what are your future educational plans?
I attended high school at Carver Senior High in Montgomery, Ala. I was an average student but I worked hard. I liked math so I took higher-level math courses but not college prep. In my younger years I was more concerned about entrepreneurship, so I focused most of my time working at a beauty salon and running my car audio business. My senior year of high school, I got interested in going to college so I made all A's that year and finished with a cumulative GPA of 2.9. I can remember being called to my counselor's office my senior year by accident; the counselor was actually calling a friend of mine who was a year younger than me but had a very similar name. After my inquiries, I realized they were there to discuss college. Though he was an honor student with better grades, I felt as if the counselor should have been discussing college opportunities with me, especially since it was my senior year. However, she suggested that I go to a local technical trade school.
Upon graduation, I decided to attend Alabama State University, a local historically black college and university. I did not have any scholarship opportunities or offer letters from colleges. The Marines seemed to be more interested in me going to the military than college recruiters. After asking around campus for scholarship opportunities, the head of the math and computer science department at ASU challenged me to "make the grades" and he would put me on scholarship. After (frequently falling) asleep in the books, I finished my first semester of college with a 3.7 GPA, and Dr. Maryland -- with the Alabama Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, or LSAMP, program at Alabama State University -- indeed gave me the scholarship. While participating in minority internships such as the Alliance for Graduate Education Program at Rice University, under the direction of Theresa Chatman and Dr. Richard Tapia, I met other minority students pursuing higher degrees, and eventually I started to gain an interest in graduate school.
I finished ASU cum laude in the summer of 2001 and decided to give back to my community as a high school teacher. I taught mathematics and science at Project Success Alternative Learning Center in Lowndes County, Ala. I also taught algebra and CISCO computer networking at The Calhoun School, also in Lowndes County.
After the state went through funding problems, I decided to pursue my dream of going to graduate school. I took some undergraduate prerequisite electrical engineering courses at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, since my undergraduate major was mathematics, and I was interested in studying radio frequency and microwave technology. I applied to many graduate schools and fellowship programs and received double-digit rejection letters.
However, I was admitted to University of South Florida to study under the direction of Dr. Thomas Weller in the Wireless and Microwave Instruments Systems program beginning fall 2004: Breakthrough! After an internship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology that summer (2004), I began the electrical engineering master’s program in fall 2004, supported by the National Science Foundation Florida-Georgia LSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate program, doing research in the area of ultra-wideband antenna design and characterization. I loved my advisor, the program and discipline so much that when opportunities opened up to pursue the Ph.D., I realized God's hand in these endeavors and accepted the challenge of pursuing the Ph.D. beginning fall 2006, after finishing the master's program. My dissertation work was in the area of radio frequency sensor design and development for biomedical sensing applications.
I recently finished the Ph.D., fall 2010, and I will walk in the spring 2011 commencement as Dr. Quenton Bonds. As for right now, I am finished with school. I do not plan to get any more degrees, unless I go to seminary school. As far as education is concerned, I think in order to stay at the forefront of technology; every engineer and/or scientist must continually stay up on the most cutting-edge technologies, and I indeed plan to stay at the forefront as a continual student in my discipline and NASA engineer.
What inspired you to choose your career field?
My passion for entrepreneurship! I was always interested in entrepreneurship. In fact, I started a business in the seventh-grade selling car audio equipment. This business sparked my initial interest in electrical engineering. By high school, I had acquired self-taught skills to run a full-service installation and car audio sales business, specializing in high wattage systems. Although I enjoyed selling and installing car audio systems, I realized this was a fad that would eventually get old. I looked around at all of the power lines, wires, and cords everywhere and realized that one day everything around us would be wireless. The entrepreneur in me decided that I wanted to be at the forefront of such technologies, so I decided to study radio frequency and microwave technology in graduate school.
What do you think were the most important things you learned from your experience at NASA?
First and foremost, a belief that all things are possible! I can remember sitting at my desk during the first week of my first internship at Ames Research Center and being presented with a task that at the time I felt was one of my weakest technical areas: computer programming. In addition, I was assigned to program in a language that I had never even heard of before. Even more, this was "NASA." The most brilliant people in the world work here: This is an organization that can safely take humans to the moon and back to Earth. How can I perform at this level? I can remember praying for help. I did not want to mess up my first opportunity to work at NASA. However, nine weeks later, not only was I able to successfully finish the project, I was able to document and package it so thoroughly, that if the prototype and experimentation had to be reproduced, it could be easily done. Which leads me to two: The things done at NASA are not above my abilities; with hard work and dedication, I too can be a NASA scientist.
How has your NASA experience affected your future?
Other than the most obvious - a phenomenal career as a NASA research engineer - my successes in the NASA pipeline have helped to endow me with the confidence to take on any task and believe that I can and will be successful. The challenges that I have faced and the successes thereof have helped me to feel that I am very competent in my field. In addition, the doors that NASA has opened for me will help me to pursue other callings such as exposing underprivileged youth to technology at an early age, as well as enlightening the younger generation to the exciting possibilities that exist in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
What are you doing now?
I am currently a research electronics engineer at Goddard. I work with the Microwave Instrument Branch, where we develop microwave sensors and instrumentation for retrieving various geoscience data from Earth such as ocean salinity, soil moisture, forest biomass, rain density and wind speed of storm activity.
What advice do you have for students who want to work for NASA?
- Become an expert in math and physics!
- Apply for every student opportunity, internship and or co-op that is available, and don't stop until you have been successful. Try to get a co-op the last semester before you plan to graduate and begin working; at this point, you will have a better idea of the NASA research branch and or center where you would like to pursue a career.
- Do some research to find a few different areas of NASA research that interest you and pursue them aggressively. Think out of the box in your pursuit; maybe set up an appointment to talk to a NASA researcher via phone to discuss his or her research. Find out if they will be at any conferences that you can attend ... If you are not going to any conferences, talk to your department and or professor(s) about going to one. They are great for networking.
- Each NASA center has an educational department. Contact them for assistance and inform them of your goals.
- Don't be afraid to graduate a semester or even two semesters later than expected, (to pursue) an internship or co-op with NASA. One year is nothing compared to a lifetime of fulfillment!
› Jenkins Pre-doctoral Fellowship Project
› Minority University Research and Education Program
› Graduate Student Researchers Project
› NASA's Ames Research Center
› NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
› NASA's Glenn Research Center
Credit: Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services