Mathematician-turned-instrument scientist James "Bryan" Blair takes an unconventional approach and is always looking for that next mountain to climb.
Name: James "Bryan" Blair
Title: Instrument Scientist
Formal Job Classification: Physical Scientist
Organization: Code 694, Laser Remote Sensing Laboratory, Planetary Science Office, Science Directorate
Years at Goddard: 24
Years in Current Position: 22
What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard?
I develop remote-sensing techniques and instruments. To do this effectively, I act as a translator between the scientists and engineers. Because my educational background is in mathematics and computer engineering, I'm not always familiar with the way things have always been done in a specific field. This frees me to try to come up with novel approaches. I also was a part of a special college program that taught techniques for solving difficult problems in mathematics. Hopefully, I can use this unique perspective to inspire other scientists and engineers to think about a problem differently and even to do things that they never thought were possible.
What makes a good leader? What makes a good team player?
Goddard scientist James "Bryan" Blair scaled the Himalayas' Imja Tse, also known as "Island Peak," in Nepal in 1990. Blair is wearing a Mars Orbital Laser Altimeter shirt.
Credit: Chris Warner photograph, courtesy Bryan Blair
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I am the principal investigator for the Land, Vegetation and Ice Sensor Instrument, LVIS (pronounced "Elvis"). I took an idea then gathered a small, self-motivated team and created a high-impact remote sensing capability. I try to identify everyone's strengths and then let them do what they like to do best. I encourage people to pursue their own goals and try to provide the framework for them to achieve them.
Is there something surprising about your background that people do not generally know?
When I was young, I worked at my father's custom home building company and helped build houses from the ground up. Now my girlfriend and I live in an old, stone house in the northern part of Baltimore City that we are slowly restoring. We do everything ourselves. We even rented a Bobcat and re-graded the entire yard.
Why did you choose your profession? Why did you come to work at Goddard?
I majored in mathematics because I was good at it as a kid. I came to Goddard because there are so many opportunities and options available and I wanted to do something constructive. I became an instrument scientist because instruments provide measurements in the form of raw data, and then we use mathematics to convert these measurements into meaningful scientific observations.
Who is the most interesting, inspiring or amazing person you have met or worked with at Goddard?
Dr. James Garvin inspired me early in my career when we were working together. He believed in me and helped me believe in myself. That confidence has allowed me to act on my own ideas and intuition. He steered my career into a new direction that opened up many avenues for me to explore. We remain great friends to this day.
What is the coolest thing you've ever done at Goddard?
We designed and built an instrument that maps Earth's surface, including large areas of Antarctica that have never been mapped before. We are based out of an airport in the southern tip of Chile where we had the opportunity to see penguins nearby in their natural habitat. From Chile, we fly over Antarctica including the South Pole.
If you weren't in your current profession, what would you be doing?
I would be building things, maybe "green" (environmentally conscientious) homes.
Is there something surprising about you, your hobbies, interests, activities outside of work that people do not generally know?
I spent many years rock climbing all over the country. I even competed in some rock climbing contests and did pretty well. But my biggest adventure was climbing a 20,000-foot mountain, Imja Tse, in the Himalayas near Mount Everest. We had the full experience including sherpas and yaks. The funny thing is that I enjoy the journey of climbing more than I enjoy actually reaching the summit. Once I get there, I always think – what's the next thing to do?
What one word or phrase best describes you?
What is your "six-word memoir?" A six-word memoir describes something, in this case, you, in just six words.
Goal-oriented high expectations unique free-thinking catalyst.
Of Note: Blair received the 2012 NASA Exceptional Achievement in Technology Award.
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