Student Features

Small Research, Big Results
Good things happen when people seize opportunities. But even better things can happen when people seek their own opportunities. Jabulani Barber first became involved with NASA through a program at Morehouse College, and that involvement would have a major impact as he looked for new ways to work with the agency.
Jabulani Barber

Jabulani Barber hopes to help teach and inspire young scientists. Image Credit: Jabulani Barber

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In which NASA student opportunity project did you participate, and how did you get involved in it?

I first became involved with NASA research through the Project S.P.A.C.E. (Strategic Preparedness Advancing Careers in Engineering/Sciences) program at Morehouse College. Through this program, I was selected to be a Ronald E. McNair Scholar. Although I am unsure of the actual process, I believe I was selected to participate in this program through my admissions portfolio (high school grades, extracurricular, SAT performance and essays) to the college. This program afforded me the opportunity to do research at several NASA centers.

What research did you do at NASA, and why is it important?

The first research program that I participated in was at JSC (Johnson Space Center in Houston) in the life sciences division. I was performing a screening for various disinfecting agents for use in treating the water systems of the International Space Station. Since the station needs to be self-sufficient, the treatment of water to make it potable (drinkable) is a very important project.

During this research internship, I was exposed to various other research projects that were conducted at JSC. I came across an arc discharge nanotube synthesis project and asked the project leaders if I could join them in my next research assignment. They were very welcoming but directed me to the IPT (Integrated Product Team on Devices and Nanotechnology) group at Ames Research Center (at Moffett Field, Calif.) for more challenging research into nanotubes.

I contacted the IPT group and was invited to join their research team the following summer. I spent my next several summers with the group under the direction of Dr. Cattien Nguyen. The research conducted at this center related to the synthesis and application of carbon nanotubes. This was a very formative experience, as I became enthralled with nanotubes -- so much so that I would continue similar research into my graduate studies.

What was the most exciting part of your research?

There were several exciting aspects of conducting research at a NASA center. The most exciting part of my research experience was seeing that I could have a direct impact on a mission need. This occurred in both the water treatment and nanotube research projects. In addition to this, the research internships gave me a great deal of responsibility. Although I was directed by a project manager, I was given the freedom to investigate other topics that interested me. This was great preparation for conducting independent research during my doctorate.

What is your educational background, and what are your future educational plans?

I was a participant in the dual-degree engineering program between Morehouse College and the Georgia Institute of Technology, where I would study chemistry and chemical engineering, respectively. Upon completion of my B.S. in chemistry, I entered the doctoral program at Georgia Tech under Lawrence Bottomley. It was here that I would continue my research into carbon nanotubes with my dissertation titled the "Mechanical Compression of Coiled Carbon Nanotubes." I was fortunate to continue to collaborate with Dr. Nguyen during the completion of my doctorate. I am currently a post-doctoral student at Harvard University under the advisement of George Whitesides.

What inspired your education/career choice?

I have always been interested in the building and deconstruction of things, from Lego blocks to fixing cars, so much so that in another life I may have been a mechanical engineer.

During high school, I read some articles inScience and Scientific American that featured nanotechnology. This newly emerging field seemed to contain everything that interested me, including the study of the behavior of matter at the nanoscale and the promise of building miniaturized machines and devices.

Although a lot of the applications were more science fiction at the time, it was all very interesting to me. I decided at that point, in the middle of high school, that I would study in this field. This has led to my academic studies in chemistry and nanotechnology during undergraduate and graduate school.

What do you think will be the most important things you’ll take away from your involvement with NASA?

I think the most important thing taken from my experiences is that you should not be afraid to try new things. I know this seems like a cliché, but I think that my experiences with the program express the truth in that statement. If I didn't have the courage to ask the researchers at Johnson Space Center to join their nanotube group, I would not be here with a Ph.D. in applied chemistry, studying nanotubes. It's amazing how one moment can change the rest of your life. I can trace where I am now to that exact moment.

In addition to that, another important experience I had in working at NASA was to never be discouraged. During my first research assignment at JSC, my experimental results were not following the expected theoretical values, even after several attempts. I could have easily just assumed I was at fault, and given up on the project. I decided to look at why the theoretical results were assumed to be true. I had to read several research articles to track down the basis for some of the theories. Eventually, I had to track down a copy of a scientific publication from the 1950s that was cited in one of the papers. After finding it, it turned out that the theory had used the incorrect value from this paper to derive their results. After correcting this, I found that the new theoretical values matched almost perfectly with the experimental ones. All in all, this experience was a great look into research and prepared me for the next few years of my academic career.

How has your NASA experience affected your career?

It has directly helped in the achievement of my doctorate. I applied for and received a Graduate Student Researchers Project fellowship and was able to reconnect with the Integrated Product Team on Devices and Nanotechnology group at Ames Research Center. Dr. Nguyen served as an unofficial member of my doctoral committee. The fellowship was both a benefit to me, as I was able to access resources at the NASA center, and to NASA, as I was able to continue and further develop the understanding of modified nanotube probes.

What are your future career plans?

I am currently working towards an academic research career. At this point, I am very interested in starting a research lab and assisting in the development of young scientists.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in NASA?

If you find something that interests you, read up on the subject and don't hesitate to ask questions about it with someone in the field. You will find that most people are willing and very happy to discuss their research with you. In the process, you may learn that current directions of the project may be completely different from those in the published literature.
NASA's student opportunity projects are designed to increase the number of scholastically well-suited, highly qualified, diverse students achieving degrees in engineering, mathematics, science or related fields. These projects support NASA's goal of strengthening the agency's and the nation's future workforce.

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David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services