COSAM News Articles 2020 July Analyzing Data from the Juno Spacecraft Orbiting Jupiter Helps this Physics Alumnus Make an Impact

Analyzing Data from the Juno Spacecraft Orbiting Jupiter Helps this Physics Alumnus Make an Impact

Published: 07/16/2020

By: Maria Gebhardt

“I work on proposals that can range in size of a project to support analyzing some data to being part of a team to develop a $100 million mission,” explained Philip Valek. “Other days I am working on designing, developing or operating an existing mission. Recently I have been working on analyzing the data returned from the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter. This July 4 marked the fourth anniversary of us arriving at Jupiter.”

Philip Valek, earned his doctorate degree in physics from Auburn University in 2001.  He is a staff scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, SwRI, a private, not for profit research institute located in San Antonio. 

“SwRI is comprised of 10 different technical divisions that cover a range of topics. All of our work comes from doing research for outside sources, either private or government. I work in the Space Science and Engineering Division, were most of our work comes from NASA. As a researcher, I am expected to pursue my own work, which gives me freedom to pick what I want to do,” he said.

Valek always has had an interest in science and technology. 

“My favorite part of my job is to come up with a description of model of why something works the way it does. Seeing all the pieces fit together is extremely satisfying,” he shared.

He dreams of being responsible for the entire project in the future. 

“I hope to lead a scientific instrument from its development to acquiring data in space one day,” Valek said. 

In preparing for his career, his first impression of Auburn University won him over and his graduate advisor has developed into a lifelong friendship. 

“I came to Auburn from Illinois,” Valek shared. “I first visited in the springtime, where in Illinois it was still cold, rainy and grey, but in Auburn the spring flowers were already in bloom. The beautiful campus really won me over.”

At Auburn, his graduate advisor was Joe Perez, who he still works with today.

“Joe knew I was interested in working with the instruments that were making the measurements in space, so he introduced me to the Space Science Department at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), where I now work. After getting my degree, we both worked on the TWINS, or Two Wide-angle Imaging Neutral-atom Spectrometers mission. TWINS images the inner magnetosphere – about 50,000km from Earth – so we can better understand this region of space. Joe and I see each other about once a year at scientific conferences.”

Valek has advice to students who are interested in an exciting career in physics and maybe even working with space instruments.

“If you are interested in pursuing a degree in physics, especially a masters or Ph.D., make sure you put in the work in your classes,” Valek explained.  “Physics builds on itself, so the better your understanding of the fundamentals the better off you will be. I also encourage looking to get involved with research, either at Auburn or at any number of national summer programs. This let you know what research is really like. It doesn’t matter if the subject isn’t what you want to study when you graduate, since the experience and skill from the research will be extremely valuable.”

Valek has two children Zef and Calla.  When he is not working in the lab, he enjoys getting out in nature for hiking and camping. 

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