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Center Snapshot: Gao Chen
Gao Chen. Image above: Gao Chen is a physical scientist who works in NASA Langley's Science Directorate. Photo credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

It all begins with math, but it hardly ends there. And the math involves more than numbers.

"In college physics, Physics 101, a lot of kids just plug in an equation," said Gao Chen, a physical scientist who works in data interpretation with the Science Directorate.

"There are tons of equations in the book. But the important thing for me is to think about a physical picture, what this problem is. If you don't have a mental picture and you just use the formula, you'll be lost. So it is math, but it's a higher level of thinking before you actually do the math."

That means that Gao, who moved to the United States from his native China to do graduate work at Georgia Tech in 1986, has to understand the science involved in generating the data he has to help interpret.

"If you don't understand the science, you can be a super math guy, but you wouldn't be very tough," he said, laughing.

It's the only way to answer the primary question about measuring data: Does it make sense?

Much of that data is collected in airplanes in the troposphere, the first 10 kilometers or so above Earth. Above that, satellite measurements tend to hold forth.

And much of that data goes through the Langley Aerosol Research Group (LARGE).

"I'm most related to airborne studies," Gao said. "Almost everything I do is related to that. My research interests are to better understand aerosols in terms of their distribution, their source, their properties and how they influence air quality and radiation, our climate."

He came to the United States to round out his education and to work after listening to a guest lecture by a Georgia Tech professor in China. Gao was doing similar research in Beijing at the time.

Moving to Atlanta involved a cultural adjustment.

"The China I left and the China of today are two different countries," said Gao, who returns to China annually to visit his parents. His father is still an academician in Beijing at 76.

"They're different politically, economically, everything. Culturally.

They're more westernized in many ways, and in some things, I don't recognize China anymore. There are Starbucks everywhere. I never had a single drop of coffee until I was 25 years old. I had my first taste of Coca-Cola when I was 23."

As important, being educated at Georgia Tech involved an academic cultural adjustment.

"In China, I felt we had more 'guided' learning," he said. "The professor always told you what to do. We had discussions, but you were always looking up and thinking he's so much smarter than me."

At Georgia Tech, his first project involved building an instrument.

"I was spending hundreds of dollars a day just trying to find parts," Gao said. "That shocked me. I could make my own decisions. I would go to professor and he said go make it."

Those choices were a revelation to Gao, who added that the academic environment in China has changed since he left and now involves more freedom. His education in his native country makes him more appreciative of the opportunities his son, Kevin, has here.

Kevin is a freshman at the University of Virginia.

Away from Langley, he plays in a Hampton Roads badminton league, calling his game "somewhere between backyard and YouTube."

The game on YouTube involves Olympians and a shuttlecock that can come off the racquet at 200 mph.

"Maybe a little closer to backyard," Gao said, laughing again. "My level is not YouTube by a long shot."

The freedom involved in research in the United States makes him even more appreciative.

"You can't have freedom without support," he said. "If you don't have this environment, what we do doesn't happen. We can make decisions quickly. We help each other. We all have expertise. It definitely makes my work easier here."

Easier to understand the science to make the math work.

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