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SSAI Spotlight - Jason Li

July 06, 2023 SSAI Spotlight Series, SSAI in the News

Jason came to us from Australia after immigrating there from China as a teen. Although he’s been in the U.S. for 33 years, he still thinks Perth, Australia would be his ideal place to live. Jason was inspired to work with airplanes and spacecraft as a young child. As an adult, he has maintained his curiosity, earning two master’s degrees and more recently teaching himself a new programming language; and his passion for space shows through in both his work and his interest in Astronomy. Come take a few minutes to get to know Jason Li.  

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Shanghai, China during the height of the Cultural Revolution.  Immigrated to Australia as a teenager. Unfortunately, I have lost my Aussie accent after having lived here for over 33 years.

What did you want to be when you were a kid? 
I have always been interested in airplanes and spacecraft since an early age.  The iconic photo of Ed White floating freely outside the Gemini IV spacecraft had a lasting impact on me.  I wanted to be associated with NASA one way or another someday. I’d say I have fulfilled my childhood dream! 

Did you have a summer job while in high school or college? 
Not a summer job, but a legit part-time job when I was in high school. I worked as a night stacker at a Coles Supermarket in Sydney. Coles is like Giant Food here.  I restocked shelves in the evenings after the store was closed.  

Where did you go to school?
I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Physics (with Honors) from Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia. I then went on to pursue a Master’s degree in Atmospheric Sciences at the Space Sciences and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin – Madison. Professor Bill Smith and Dr. Paul Menzel were my advisors there. To expand my educational repertoire, I completed a Master’s degree in Computer Science from Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering for Professionals in 2006. 

What excites you most about your work?
I have been working with a very supportive manager for many years. He has placed trust in me and given me freedom to meet task requirements the way I see fit. That makes the job exciting and fulfilling. In my book, micromanagement kills creativity and productivity. 

Jason and his daughter - look close - viewing the JWSTIf you weren’t working in the field you are right now, what other job would you be interested in trying?
Astronomy! I am so lucky to have access to the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) campus where there are many astronomy-related seminars and events. Here, my daughter and I went to see the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) up close while it was still in the GSFC clean room. This was years before it opened its golden eyes on the Universe.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
The best life advice come from those who are near the end of their lives. They know what really mattered in life. Check out Dr. Sayyada Mawji’s TEDx talk in 2022. She is a palliative care physician in the U.K.

Tell us a little about your family.
My wife and I have been married for more than 20 years. We have one daughter who is a high school senior. On my wife’s side of the family, they are Korean Chinese living in Harbin, China. My in-laws’ first language is Korean. I never knew what they said about me when introducing me to someone in their big extended Korean family ;-)  Members on my side of the family all live in Perth, Western Australia. We celebrate our multi-cultural background with ties to China, Korea, Japan, Australia, and the USA.  

Just before the pandemic, we welcomed Luna, a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy, into our home. She is dignified, intelligent and fiercely loyal, a member of the Li family. 

What is your favorite book or movie?
The 1973 movie Papillon, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.  It is a true story of Henri "Papillon" Charrière, about his resilience, his deep friendship with Louis Dega, and the indomitable human spirit in the face of extreme adversity.  It is also one of the most phenomenal acting performances I have ever seen.

What are you most looking forward to this year?
Looking forward to learning Zhan Zhuang (站桩). It is an exercise that involves standing in various stationary postures for an extended period. 

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be?
I’d say Perth, Western Australia. The weather is always fine, the air is fresh, Swan River is beautiful. While Sydney and Melbourne have claimed their spots as one of the top ten most livable places on Earth year after year, I think Perth is comparable. I have lived in all three cities for a considerable amount of time. Each has something unique to offer.

Annotated picture of the CAR that Jason created using his photography skillsWhat is your favorite hobby?
I became interested in photography in 1994.  That skill came in handy when I worked with the Cloud Absorption Radiometer (CAR). I created this annotated picture of the instrument. Pretty neat. I remember setting up a makeshift photo studio in the basement of the building and using my Hasselblad 501CM medium format camera. 

I bought my first digital camera in the late nineties. It was an Olympus D200-L which I took with me to a few of the field campaigns. With a 0.3 MP (640x480) resolution, I was able to create visually enhanced post flight summary reports. Was impressive stuff back then.

Tell us your favorite life hack.
Easy-clean garbage can. Food juices leaking from garbage bags into the bottom of the garbage bin make a nasty and smelly mess. Put newspapers, or sawdust, or tiny paper shreds from a document shredder - in the bottom of the bin under the bag, to soak up liquids and make cleanup easier.

Did you learn anything new during the pandemic?
I started dabbling with the Julia programming language. Hope to be proficient soon.

What question would you most like to know the answer to?
Are we alone in the universe? Nobody knows. Then let’s try to get some answers to Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) and their, far beyond next-gen, technologies. There is no longer a stigma around UAPs/UFOs, even NASA has commissioned a UAP task force recently.

What’s the best compliment you’ve received?
My wife said I am a good father. I agree. 

Who or what inspires you?
Neil Alden Armstrong, the first man on the moon. He was always calm, cool, and collected. After an event at the National Air and Space Museum to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, my friend Arun and I caught up with Mr. Armstrong.  He was very personable and chatted with us briefly. I thanked him personally for inspiring me.

What is your favorite family tradition?
In the month of November, to celebrate the life of our infant son, my wife and I visit the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House. We support their mission to provide care, treatment, comfort, and hope to families during their children's medical journeys. 

What’s the strangest thing you have ever come across?
I felt like I had a teleportation experience once. One day, I took an elevator to upstairs like I had done countless times before in my old office building, nothing unusual. But when the elevator doors opened, it was the other side of the building, which should not be possible. If we live in a simulation like Elon says, there must be a bug in the software!

What’s the luckiest thing that has ever happened to you?
Almost met my maker on Route 197 in Laurel many years ago. Instead of continuing to make the left turn, a driver changed her mind suddenly and pulled her minivan right into my path. Luckily, I paid attention and was able to make an evasive maneuver with only inches to spare. I thank my driving instructor from Australia often for having taught me the defensive driving skills.

What is the most interesting fact you know? 
Our brain has 86 billion neurons and 85 billion non-neuronal cells. It runs continuously, whether awake or sleeping, on only about 12 watts of power. The brain’s power source is the solar energy stored in food. If the human brain were a computer, it would be the greenest computer on Earth.

Jason at Acadia National Park in June 2022