This week's featured Indigenous scientist is Aaron Yazzie. Aaron was born in Tuba City, Arizona, and was raised in Holbrook, Arizona, the seat of Navajo County.
Yazzie attended Stanford University, where he received a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 2008. In September of that year, he started working for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. There, he designs mechanical systems for robotic space research systems. He has contributed to the Mars Science Laboratory Rover missions, the Mars InSight Lander Mission, and the Mars 2020 Rover Mission, the latter of which is due to launch on July 30th, 2020. You can check out a 3D visualization of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover here.
When he's not building parts for planetary research vessels, Yazzie enjoys reaching out to young people—particularly those from Indigenous communities—and encouraging them to consider futures in STEM. He is also a Sequoyah Fellow (lifetime member) of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, where he strives to increase Indigenous representation in STEM fields.
Yazzie took time out of his busy week to answer a few questions I had.
Sara Wilbur: When did you first start getting interested in STEM?
Aaron Yazzie: I’ve always been interested in being creative and building things. Those early interests are what got me on a path to engineering—the math and science came next.
SW: Tell me about your interest in robotics.
AY: I wish, growing up, there would have been more opportunities (or any opportunities) in robotics (e.g. clubs, competitions like FIRST Robotics, VEX Robotics, etc) in my hometown or school. But nothing like that existed. It wasn’t until I went to college that I built my first robot as part of a class. As a mechanical engineer, I designed and built mechanisms and structures. Then you add motors, electronics, and computer programming, and the field becomes even more challenging and exciting.
SW: What was the transition like for you from Holbrook, Arizona to Palo Alto, California, where you attended Stanford University?
AY: It wasn’t an easy transition. The quantity and pace of knowledge transfer was much higher than I had ever experienced in small town public school. Also I had a very full class schedule for my 4 years to a bachelor’s degree because I had no AP-type classes to transfer. I learned quickly how to be a better student and a better learner. I also learned how to seek help when I needed it. These harsh lessons I learned followed me to NASA, too, where I once again found myself in a fast-paced learning environment. I’ve gotten good at being a life-long learner. All the work put in over the years make an achievement like the Mars 2020 launch that much more rewarding.
SW: What aspect of your work are you most proud of?
AY: I’m proud that I get to help with advancement of knowledge, technology, and science for a living. I get paid to learn cool things and share it with the world! It’s a privilege. As a byproduct, this helps inspire many to pursue education and careers in STEM.
SW: I imagine you’ve inspired other Indigenous children to pursue STEM. Can you share any of those experiences?
AY: I try to engage with Indigenous students and communities as much as possible. Growing up, I didn’t see much representation of Indigenous Peoples at places like NASA, so it took me a long time to realize that someone like me could actually belong there. Now, I am consistently moved and motivated by the response from the Indigenous community in seeing one of their own represented on projects like Mars Curiosity and Mars 2020. I have been blessed with a platform to motivate students who are like me.
SW: Tell me about the Mars 2020 Rover Mission!
AY: The Mars 2020 Rover, named Perseverance, is heading to Mars in a matter of days (launch window opens on July 30, 2020). It has several goals for its mission: study the geology and climate of Mars, pave the path for Humans to one-day explore the planet, and determine if there is, or ever was, life on Mars. It will do this through a set of highly advanced science instruments aboard a car-sized rover with incredible technological capabilities. Also, coming along for the ride is a Mars helicopter named Ingenuity. This helicopter will be our first demonstration of flight on another planet.
One of the systems on Perseverance is a Sample Caching System that will drill and collect samples of Mars rocks and regolith [the layer of unconsolidated rocky material covering bedrock] for potential return to Earth in future missions. This is the system I worked on for the past four years. I built the drill bits that the rover will use to collect samples for study. There are three types of bits: a coring bit that will drill a cylindrical core sample of rock, a regolith bit that will collect loose rocky material (or regolith), and an abrading bit that will make flat, shallow abrasions in rocks so we can image beneath the top layer of weathered rock. These drill bits can be interchanged through a bit carousel; Perseverance has nine total bits to choose from.
If you want any additional information about the mission that I didn't cover, or are looking for cool pictures to use, there are a lot of good resources here: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/.