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Center Snapshot: Melissa Yang
Melissa Yang. Image above: Melissa Yang, a chemist at NASA's Langley Research Center, reached one of her goals when she started working at the center. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Courtney Ricks, LARSS intern

For Melissa Yang, a chemist at NASA's Langley Research Center, there really is no place like home. The hardest part about adjusting to Virginia was the mosquitoes.

But despite the threat of insects, Yang found comfort in Virginia’s warmth and humidity. The heat reminds her of native Singapore, and helps make the area feel more like home.

Yang came to the U.S. to study chemistry when she was 18 years old, but it wasn’t her first time away from the island country. Her favorite childhood memories are the trips her family took to the U.S. to visit her mother’s relatives. She recalls the excitement of rushing through airport security as they tried to board their flight.

"Coming to the states was awesome," Yang said, "I was a little kid, and I got to travel, and none of my friends ever understood why I got to go somewhere for a month."

Now her travels rarely lead her back to Singapore, and she often misses her home there.

When she thinks of her family and friends still in the city-state, she feels they are shocked by where she ended up in life and the job she has at NASA Langley. Yang is pleasantly surprised by the results of her career choices.

"You forget you work at NASA," she joked. It is not until she tells people of her job, and sees their surprise that she thinks, "Oh yeah, I work at NASA! That is so cool."

Yang's ambitions in atmospheric chemistry drew her interest to NASA. While studying at UC Irvine, the young chemist made it her goal to one day be hired by NASA.

She still regards her job as a civil servant to be her greatest accomplishment.

"You get to work with some of the brightest people in the world," Yang explained, "the wealth of information, technology, people … I don't think you could find this anywhere else."

Yang's enthusiasm for her work has not gone unnoticed. She was selected for NASA’s Foundations of Influence, Relationships, Success and Teamwork (FIRST) program that develops leadership skills in employees that show promise in project management.

FIRST allowed her to shadow senior leaders and make trips to different NASA centers. She learned valuable lessons in management through hands-on experience, and was able to meet professionals with advanced knowledge and understanding of the work force. She felt encouraged by her time in the program and continues to stay involved with different opportunities NASA presents.

As part of the Chemistry and Dynamics Branch in the Science Directorate, Yang is an active member of the Active Sensing of CO2 Emissions over Nights, Days and Seasons (ASCENDS) program.

ASCENDS makes efforts to predict climate change and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Yang does CO2 measurements to validate the lasers on ASCENDS research technology in hopes of receiving a funded satellite mission. Different NASA centers are eligible for a satellite program, so it is up to researchers like Yang to prove ASCENDS technology is deserving of funding.

"Each base has slightly different instruments, so it’s up to whoever makes the best measurements and who is in the better position to proceed forward," Yang said.

The CO2 sampling technology used for ASCENDS will also be used when she travels for NASA’s Southeast Asia Composition, Cloud, Climate Coupling Regional Study (SEAC4RS). The group will study emissions and air quality over Southeast Asia, preferably based out of Thailand.

Though Thailand has not yet given clearance for flight, their approval would allow Yang to spend 40 days researching the influence of Asian pollution on air quality and other environmental concerns.

"We're trying to help answer the important questions about the atmosphere and environment," Yang said, "It's really neat to play that small role in trying to save the world."

Through climate studies, she found ways to travel and conduct her research all over the world. As a graduate student, she spent a summer in Egypt and later participated in NASA campaigns that took her from Costa Rica to Alaska.

Though work dictates many of her destinations, she remains positive for each trip and is able to see the beauty in every place she is sent.

"By far the prettiest place I've been is South Caicos Island. I’ve never been somewhere so beautiful in my life," Yang recalled of her time spent conducting marine ecology studies in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

She always tries to enjoy the places her job takes her, and often falls in love with the scenery, culture and food of the different locations. Despite the novelty of each new place, she can never forget the comfort found at home.

"If I'm being really honest, my favorite place for food in the world is still Singapore," she said.

Although she's still fond of Southeast Asia, Yang is dedicated to working on her house in Newport News.

"So that's my new big project—getting my house moving forward," Yang revealed, "Right now, it's just a blank canvas, so I want to put my personality in it and make it feel more like home."

The house itself offers Yang refuge from the mosquitoes, ticks and fleas, and to this day she still keeps her desk drawer filled with bug repellent creams and sprays.

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