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A quantum leap

April 11, 2004|K.C. Cole | Times Staff Writer

In high school, Adam Steltzner got what he describes as a "great education. I learned how to meet girls, what drugs to take, where the best shows were." He failed most of sophomore and junior years and earned a 460 combined score on his SATs. For many years, he played bass in various bands, supporting his various habits by working in a health food store.

Jamie Dyk tried out for the Laker Girls and "made it pretty far" before realizing that what with practice and appearances, she was going to have to choose between dancing and her day job. A cheerleader throughout high school, Dyk was raised in "a Christian home" in rural Montana and believes strongly that people were "brought here to give back to society."

On weekends, Kobie Boykins rides his motorcycle through the canyons with friends. "I like speed," said Boykins, who plays competitive ice hockey twice a week. It's a big change from his boyhood in Nebraska, where he grew up around lumbering farm equipment. Boykins sometimes "lightens the tension" at work by telling racial jokes. "I can get away with it," he said, "because I have a lot of African American in me."

A self-confessed tomboy, Shonte Wright wears her hair in long minibraids and plays basketball seven to nine hours a week. She describes her current work environment as "hilarious. You should see what people wear! We always look like we're going out to play."

Her colleague Wayne Lee considers himself lucky to have a wife who bought him "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" for Valentine's Day. "On airplanes, I'm sitting there with my Game Boy, and these businessmen in their stuffy suits and their laptops, and they'll look at me like, 'So, are you going back to school?' And I say, 'No, I work for NASA.' "

If you watched the landings of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity on television, you will remember Lee as the man in charge -- the one in the American flag shirt who brought out the broom after his team made a two-for-two "clean sweep." Steltzner -- who now has a doctorate degree and a baby at home -- headed the team that designed the entry, descent and landing systems. Boykins led the team that designed the mechanism to operate the solar panels and Wright helped design the thermal systems that keep the rovers warm. Dyk was in charge of testing the landing systems during development.

"At heart, I'm a space geek who wants to put hardware on the surface of Mars," the would-be Laker Girl said.

If the images coming back from Mars looked an awful lot like Arizona, there was nothing familiar about the exuberant young engineers whooping it up in the control room of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena -- talking on cellphones, cracking jokes, wearing funny T-shirts. (Lee even took a call from his baby-sitting father, who wanted to know how to tune in to NASA TV.)

Gone are the days when space geeks were (only) poker-faced pocket-protector guys with narrow ties and crew cuts. The rocket scientists at the JPL are surfer dudes, sky divers, rock climbers -- even "Survivor" survivors. Far from the seemingly bloodless clones of the Apollo era, the young faces on the screen were as sunny, as animated, as varied, as So Cal itself.

The free-to-be-me atmosphere that's creating such a sense of excitement at JPL these days does not, obviously, extend to all scientific institutions -- or even to JPL at all times in its history.

Yet it is hardly isolated. Parts of the physics community, for example, also seem to be amid an extreme geek makeover.


Both physics and engineering are still largely "pale and male," populated by straight-A, straight-arrow students who take the standard, well-trod road. But exceptions are also increasingly visible -- and with the U.S. facing a critical shortage of scientific talent, they may be what saves the scientific community from itself.

Harvard professor Lisa Randall, who's played a major role in the study of extra dimensions, gives talks wearing low-slung trousers, makeup, jewelry. At some point, she said, she realized that no matter how hard she worked to fit the reigning mold of "physicist," she was always going to be different. "It's not like they're going to be fooled," she said. So she decided not to try. (She is also an accomplished rock climber.)

Stanford post-doctoral student Stephon Alexander, who applies higher-dimensional physics to cosmology, had been advised to cut his hair, but he liked his long dreads just the way they were. "There are lots of women and blacks and Latinos who want to be invisible, and I ain't one of those," he said, laughing. "I'm sorry. I'm hip. People look at the music industry, or basketball, and say: 'That's cool.' Well, what I do is cool too."

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