A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Manwei Chan, PHD Candidate at MIT Space Telecommunications, Astronomy & Radiation Laboratory, former Matthew Isakowitz Fellow at Nanoracks and President of MIT SEDS
What is your background?
Space always enthralled me growing up. While I cannot pinpoint one particular experience where I can say I knew I was a ‘spaceman’, I remember my childhood bedroom had glow-in-the-dark stars and planets. I loved Star Wars, and I spent hours playing with my Naboo Starfighter, Hoth Snow Speeder, and Vader’s Tie Fighter spaceships. I also remember being awed by planetarium shows, so part of my passion is thanks to my parents and school trips that brought me to these presentations.
In high school, trying to figure out my way in the world, I saw physics as a quantitative avenue to answer metaphysical questions such as, “what am I supposed to do with my life?” I was awed by the fact that we, as humans, figured out a way to quantify the age of the universe, determine how fast the universe was expanding, and that time is a relative concept! At that point, I was trying to figure out how to take the cosine of a right triangle, and I saw physics as a path to get from trigonometry to answering the metaphysical. While I can’t claim to have found any metaphysical answers, it didn’t stop me from pursuing physics and math at Johns Hopkins University. During my undergrad, I had the opportunity to intern at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. My major research project throughout my undergraduate career involved the Cosmology Large Angular Scale Surveyor (CLASS), a telescope peering back at the beginning of the universe. After graduating, I spent a year in the Atacama Desert in Chile as the CLASS telescope technician.
From Chile, I entered graduate school at MIT in Aerospace Engineering. While I was in Chile, I read “How to Make a Spaceship” by Julian Guthrie, where I learned that Peter Diamandis co-founded SEDS at MIT. I admired Peter Diamandis as one of the pioneers in the commercial space industry, so I rebooted and led the MIT SEDS organization. SEDS provided an excellent platform to get involved with the commercial space industry, both internal and external to MIT. Internally, SEDS offered a perfect environment to support some of my initiatives such as the MIT Space Seminar, which brought space professionals to MIT to speak to the community. SEDS provided the infrastructure to communicate with the existing space community in Boston, to obtain funding, and SEDS also acted as a lightning rod for space enthusiasts, allowing me to meet people I would not have met otherwise. Externally from MIT, SEDS also organizes student competitions and the SpaceVision conference, both of which have allowed me to learn about space in a hands-on manner. At MIT, I also had the wonderful opportunity to intern at NanoRacks as a Matthew Isakowitz Fellow, which I will get into a little bit later.
Research-wise, I received my Master’s degree in aerospace engineering and am now pursuing my PhD, studying how propulsion can enhance the capabilities of satellite constellations.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
As a student, I can point to my degrees, projects, and papers, but at my personal core, I am most proud of the friends I have made during my journey. Professionally, I am always surprised by what I can learn from my friends and mentors. For example, during my time at NanoRacks, one of my mentors recounted his trip to a National Space Council meeting. I heard from other attendees that the meeting was boring or pointless, yet my mentor noted that Mike Pence, the Vice President at the time, used language recently published by a NanoRacks competitor in his speech. My mentor gleaned that the National Space Council recently talked with this specific NanoRacks competitor, so we had to adjust our strategy in the next NASA proposal. That day, I was given a crash-course in how to extract information from a meeting that others may consider a waste of time. I truly appreciate moments like this, which wouldn’t be possible if I hadn’t befriended my mentor in the first place. At the end of the day, my academic and professional accomplishments wouldn’t exist without the knowledge I gained from my peers, mentors, and mentees.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
Putting myself in position to receive opportunities and then taking advantage of unexpected opportunities, which I’ll illustrate with a quick anecdote.
I learned of a nearby conference with various technical leaders in attendance. Unfortunately, this was an industry-geared conference with tickets beyond my budget. Digging further, I found a scholarship application, and on a whim applied and received a free ticket. At the conference, I was struck by one speaker’s passion for space sustainability. After his talk, I followed up to let him know I appreciated his viewpoints. This speaker is now funding my PhD research, which is well aligned with his start-up. I also have the benefit of straddling both the academic and start-up scenes, learning a great deal from each environment. If I hadn’t taken the time to apply to the conference scholarship, I would be in a very different situation today.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
Projects outside of class have an enormous impact on my career. These projects include my own PhD research, NASA competitions, business plan competitions, and organizing extra-curricular activities. The skills I have picked up from my projects have been invaluable. Projects allowed me to hone various hard skills, but perhaps more importantly, gave me an opportunity to practice honing my soft skills as a team member and leader. Many hands make light work, and I am a firm believer that teams, especially in engineering, can accomplish greater goals than individuals. Learning to manage professional relationships is not taught explicitly in schools, but this skill has significantly shaped my career trajectory.
One note on projects: I found it most useful to enter projects with a specific learning objective in mind. Whether it is to learn PCB design or to practice your organizational leadership, you can enhance what you gain from a project by focusing on a personal development goal.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
As a student, my job is to learn, and I truly enjoy figuring out how the world works. Everytime I learn something new, it adds a new tool to my toolbox. For example, I’m currently working with a GPS receiver, and through this project I’ve been able to learn about electronic CAD design, PCB manufacturing, and GPS signals. Previously, I learned how to develop and test a guidance algorithm for rendezvous and docking. In some respect, a PhD is a culmination of using a set of these tools, where the thesis itself is a unique combination of these fields that has never been melded together before. I’m inspired by this creation of a new methodology or technology as it offers a new perspective on how we can use knowledge to benefit the world.
However, with my PhD project, the job can get fairly solitary, especially during pandemic times. The intersection and creation of new ideas has definitely slowed for me during the pandemic. Luckily I am living with great roommates who are able to offer technical as well as social support. Also, while not as good as an in-person meeting, the virtual tools such as Zoom, Google Meet, etc. have allowed me to exchange ideas with people from around the globe.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
Climate change awareness is growing tremendously, and space technologies are a great avenue to tackle this global problem. Earth observation satellites can be used to collect weather data, track storms, measure carbon sequestration and emissions, and monitor ocean temperatures. There are also supporting technologies such as machine learning to parse the collected data and automation to control large fleets of satellites. The incoming administration’s focus on the climate crisis will also help foster opportunities for future work in this area. Personally, I have been following companies such as GHGSat, who are measuring greenhouse gases using small satellites; Pachama, who uses satellite data to develop a carbon trading marketplace; Planet, the CubeSat based earth observation constellation; and tomorrow.io, formerly ClimaCell, who are launching satellites to improve weather forecasting.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation following a similar career path?
Check your ego at the door! It will accelerate your own development if you recognize your limitations while simultaneously trying to learn from all your peers. It will also make people enjoy working with you if you have a clear understanding of what you do and do not know. Remember every person has lived a different life and therefore has something unique to share.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
If you are a student interested in space, I would recommend looking into various programs and organizations to get involved in. Personally, my experiences with Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC), and the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship Program (MIFP) were invaluable. While I can only speak to my experience with the Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship Program, there are many other amazing fellowships such as the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship, the Zed Factor Fellowship, and the Brooke Owens Fellowship. Note: each fellowship is unique, so do you research and figure out which one suits you the best!
For those thinking of the MIFP, the application process was very enjoyable. The initial application when I applied included thought-provoking questions that got me thinking about the future of the space industry and the areas which are most promising. This phase was followed by interviews with members of the MIFP team, who are all amazing. Lastly, the application process ended with an interview with my potential host company, NanoRacks. While at NanoRacks, I worked on the advanced program development team, researching and writing proposals to develop technologies that would stimulate a self-sustaining economy in low-earth orbit. Through NanoRacks, my executive mentor, and the other fellow interning in Washington DC, I was able to integrate smoothly into a new city and also get involved with the local space community. Near the end of my summer, the program also held a summit for the fellows, which was the most memorable part of my fellowship experience. I met the fellows from my year, and we stay in touch to this day. It is a great alumni network as we are always sharing space news, opinions, and achievements with each other. One alumni also developed a unique control framework that is a critical part of the satellite I am currently building. One message I took away from my experience was an appreciation of the opportunity to enjoy space, but to do it in a way that benefits the rest of humanity. My MIFP summer is definitely a highlight of my graduate school experience.
The Space Talent Spotlight is our blog series focused on the leaders and builders at the intersection of space and tech.The Space Talent Spotlight is our blog series focused on the leaders and builders at the intersection of space and tech.