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David Painemal
January 27, 2014

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David Painemal once imagined that in his journey through life, he'd keep his feet firmly planted on the ground. Instead, he ended up with his head in the clouds.

A native of Santiago, Chile, Painemal (pronounced pine-uh-mal) did most of his growing up in the city. But he spent many of his boyhood summers in a rural southern stretch of the country that his ancestors and extended family called home.

He remembers wandering around the countryside there, seeing people at work in the orchards. Those pastoral scenes resonated with him.

"I had this romantic dream of being a farmer when I was a boy," he said.

As he grew older, though, Painemal, whose father is a high school chemistry teacher, gravitated toward science and technology. At the University of Chile, he decided to pursue a degree in engineering.

Oddly enough, it was during an undergraduate Earth science class that his interests began to lift skyward. One of his professors first piqued his interest with a lecture on atmospheric science.

Later, Painemal offered to be an assistant to a professor of geophysics. That professor had an instrument that captured his imagination.

"I was an electrical engineering student and I saw this cool instrument that emitted a laser pulse," he said. "It could actually detect cloud height, so I started to play with the thing, I fixed the instrument at some point — and that's the way everything started."

Painemal went on to earn his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and a master's in geophysics at the University of Chile. He then headed to the U.S. to study atmospheric science at the University of Miami. After earning his Ph.D., he came to NASA Langley's Science Directorate, where he did over two years of postdoctoral work studying how variations in cloud properties (both natural and human-affected) can change the energy reflected back to space.

Finally, in December of last year, Painemal accepted an offer from Science Systems and Applications Inc. to work full-time at the Science Directorate as a senior research scientist.

It was an exciting moment for the Chile native, but maybe even more so for his family — particularly his father, the high school chemistry teacher. His son would be working at NASA. He literally jumped and shouted at the news.

"It's a big deal," Painemal said, "so I guess that brings a lot of pride to him."

Though Painemal has been in the U.S. for six years now and Chile is a long, long plane ride away, he's still very close with his family. He talks to them regularly and travels to his native country at least once a year to visit his mother, father and four siblings (two brothers, two sisters).

That family will soon be growing, too — and expanding to yet another continent. At the University of Miami, Painemal met another Ph.D. student, a Chinese woman with whom he's now engaged. Painemal hopes they'll have a wedding sometime this year.

"It's going to be a difficult wedding to plan," he said, "because we both want to have a wedding in China and Chile."

In the meantime, he and his fiancée visit each other as often as they can. On a recent visit, she gave Painemal, an avid reader, a book on American explorers Lewis and Clarke. He's reading it now. The story of their expedition across the U.S. has really captured his imagination.

"These people had a mission, to go to the West and discover so many new things — that's incredible," he said.

Painemal has a mission, too, and it always carries him back to the sky and his fascination with clouds. That fascination was set in stone in college, but even when he was a young boy running free beneath the vast, colorful skies of southern Chile, the clouds were a source of wonder and mystery to him.

And today, he's on a mission to crack some of those mysteries, to reveal the science behind what's happening above us — and to share it with the world.

"Everybody is interested in clouds," he said. "They are everywhere. They are beautiful. You stare at clouds all the time and it's very nice to know that behind these beautiful little shapes in the air there's a very complex process."

Joseph Atkinson
NASA Langley Research Center

David Painemal
David Painemal grew up in Chile and once had a "romantic dream" of being a farmer. Today, he's a senior research scientist at NASA Langley's Science Directorate.
Image Credit: 
NASA/David C. Bowman
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Page Last Updated: January 27th, 2014
Page Editor: Joe Atkinson