Ben Hyatt is a mathematics major with minors in physics and philosophy, who will graduate in 2021. He is also a Honors College scholar.
Title of your research project:
Characterizing and Navigating Small Bodies with Imaging Data
Describe your project:
My project focused on the analysis of a variety of bodies in our solar system – including moons, asteroids, comets, and even entire planets – using an aggregate of image and altimetry data taken from a multitude of spacecraft on several NASA missions and one JAXA mission. The goal in doing so was to create highly accurate shape models of the bodies, allowing scientists to theorize about the geological development of the bodies, and/or to aid future navigational tasks when coming in contact with the bodies’ surfaces.
Who is your mentor for your project?
My mentor is Dr. Carolyn M. Ernst, a Planetary Scientist in the Space Exploration Sector (SES) at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Fulton, MD.
How did you find your mentor? Why did you choose them?
I first met my mentor as a high school student, applying through APL’s “ASPIRE” program. Funnily enough, my mentor was not the scientist who first interviewed me, but somehow, my name and resume ended up on her desk, and she flat-out offered me the position before meeting me. Of course, I accepted, although I barely knew what I would be working on (beyond the general scope of space exploration). After getting to know her and the project, I was excited, and motivated to find a connection between my mentor’s experience in planetary science and my passion for applied mathematics. Quite luckily, things worked out in that respect.
How did you become interested in this project?
I have always bought into the idea that space is the final frontier, and that the next several generations of mankind will continue to make heavy strides in support of space travel. While there are many factors that go into making such a quest a reality, I was confident that with my plans to study math and physics, I could somehow make a relevant impact. This project was not the angle I first envisioned entering the industry, specifically because the study of rocky bodies’ topography can be most easily appreciated from a geo-physical perspective, not an abstract mathematical one. Nevertheless, over the past two years with my mentor, I have become more aware of the math at work in the background (embedded in copious amounts of code), and discovering this relevancy more than kept my interest.
What has been the hardest part about your research/what was the most unexpected thing about being a researcher?
The sheer amount of tracking, organization, and reiteration of data is by far the biggest paradigm shift that I went through. Specifically, I would often work through lists of thousands of images of the bodies, both to assess image quality/content and to figure out the next steps in their processing. There is a big jump both in effort and complexity between the clichéd three trials in an experiment-based class and the real-life truck-load of data that is acquired over the course of a mission in space. However, I found it beneficial to engage in the routine analytical tasks; it is great practice to take advantage of a massive quantity of data by looking for patterns and deviations from the norm. Of course, I would wager that this principle applies in more areas than just data analysis.
What has been the most rewarding part?
Beyond the fact that I got way closer to actual space exploration missions than I ever dreamt of, the biggest reward of my work was succeeding with the challenge of applying my work to my area of study. I think that you have to be fairly lucky to get a job or internship that precisely lines up with your research interests, so whatever you end up doing, finding some connection is important. In my case, by having long and detailed conversations with my mentor (communication is crucial), we found mutually beneficial tasks that assisted her goals in planetary science and mine in applied mathematics. Most recently, I have been reading through abstracts that describe the linear algebra and calculus that is going on behind the scenes whilst I do analysis from the planetary science perspective. It is incredibly refreshing to be able to appreciate my work on multiple levels.
How will you disseminate your research?
On two previous occasions, I have given presentations to other interns and coworkers at APL about my research. In addition, after their completion, the projects that I have worked on will be presented at various conferences in the space community over the next few years, and my name will be listed on the abstracts as a contributor to the studies. Some of the first projects that I worked on that have since been concluded have been published in various journals. I hope to continue to tell people about my work, and as I continue to do more research, I am interested in participating in URCAD as well!
What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?
It’s never the wrong time to apply! Many of the scientists that I worked for at APL always dreaded the end of the summer season, when the majority of the interns would predictably return back to their college routines. So clearly, I’d say that if you can fit the time into your schedule, there will be good job availability in many fields during the Fall through Spring timespan. On the flipside, it’s always great to start thinking about next summer early: this is when most other college students will be aiming to find their next opportunities.
What are your career goals?
Once I graduate from UMBC, I am looking to immediately begin working towards a Ph.D. in Mathematics or Applied Mathematics. I would like to diversify my research before graduating though, so that I can have a clearer picture about what exactly I want to research. I am considering looking for future employment with NASA, because my exposure to the industry has been positive, but I am also interested in seeing what other opportunities are available. Mathematics has a deceivingly broad range of applications, and I’ve only uncovered a small fraction of them so far.