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Meet: Kevin Sato

photo of Kevin Sato
Payload Scientist
NASA Space Life Sciences Operations
NASA Ames Research Center

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Who I Am and What I Do
I am a Payload Scientist, and I work with the NASA Space Life Sciences Operations division at NASA Ames Research Center to develop experiments that will be conducted on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. I help Scientists to develop their space research goals and objectives into an experiment that can be conducted in space flight. In the process, we define all of the scientific requirements for 1) identifying the equipment needed to support the experiment in space, 2) conducting the experiment in space by the astronaut, and 3) conducting pre-flight and post-flight processing work at the launch and landing facilities. I also work closely with other support Scientists, Engineers, Operations teams, and Project Management teams at ARC and other NASA centers to build the equipment needed to conduct the experiment and to integrate the research project into the Space Shuttle and International Space Station worlds.

Areas of expertise
There are many different skills that are important for my position, which include:

  1. Education in the biological sciences
  2. Life science research experience
  3. A strong ability to work with people who have diverse backgrounds and capabilities
  4. Communications skills, including writing, presentation, and listening
  5. Project management skills
  6. Leadership ability
  7. Ability to handle frustration and change

How I first became interested in this profession
I became interested in sciences at a very early age due to the dinosaur diorama at Disneyland. Also, my father was an engineer and showed me a schematic of a radio. The electronics schematic looked nothing like a radio, which made me skeptical about engineering. In comparison, my uncle, who is an orthopedic surgeon, sent me archival X-rays showing human bones for science day when I was in third grade. It was fascinating to see what was under the skin, and the connected bones and bones of the hands all looked like what an arm should look like. Also, there were some X-rays of bone breaks, which made me curious about how a bone break heals. This event was the starting point for my specific interest in biology. My interest in space flight definitely started with the Apollo missions.

What helped prepare me for this job
My preparation for the job of a Payload Scientist came from my past work as an Experiment Support Scientist (ESS). As an ESS, my activities and responsibilities were similar to that of the Payload Scientist, except it is more compartmentalized. The Project Scientst made it a priority to provide me with solid functional training in my responsibilities. Also, I was providedThis training easily translated over to my Payload Scientist responsibilities. Also, I took training courses in project management and attended training symposia.

Role Models
I think I was pretty lucky in that I had many role models and inspirations in my life. They include my teachers, friends, family, and people I worked with in the past and today. I feel that I was very fortunate to always receive strong support from the people I associated with over the years. which has made a great difference in my outlook on life and my career.

My education and training
Early on, I was lucky to have teachers who took time to encourage me and help me. In high school I took the college pre-requisite courses and as many honors courses as possible. I also took summer school courses to help me get into advanced math courses. I attend UCLA and received my B.S. degree in Microbiology. As an undergraduate I worked for 4 years in a lab that studied immunology and cancer biology. After college I worked for 2 years at biotechnology company. Following this job, I was a graduate student at U.C., Irvine where I received my Ph.D. in Biological Sciences. I studied genes that promoted and suppressed cancer cell growth. After receiving my Ph.D., I was a national American Cancer Society and California Breast Cancer Program post-doctoral fellow at The Scripps Research Instititute. At The Scripps, I studies the process for how cells control normal cell growth and division.

My career path
The path to my career has been dominated by schoolwork. It started in high school and then to college followed by graduate school and then post-doctoral research. There was a brief 2 year vacation from school, between graduating from college and starting graduate work, when I worked at a biotechnology company. After completing my post-graduate work, I was hired by Lockheed Martin as a Senior Research Scientist/Experiment Support Scientist. After supporting a series of flight research projects, I was promoted to a Payload Scientist/Staff Reseearch Scientist.

What I like about my job
I like working with many different people in many different occupations. The opportunity to continue to learn and see things from different perspecitves through these interactions keeps the job fresh, challenging, and exciting. Also, I like the opportunities to travel to suppport education and space flight research to the science community and students, as well as to the other NASA centers to support the space flight operations for the experiment. Finally, I really like the project management aspect of the job. This allows me to be a part of all of the different areas (engineering, science, operations, integrations, and business) needed to develop and run a successful space flight project.

What I don't like about my job
The worst part of the job is the mounds of paperwork that you have to generate to create the experiment, defend it, and integrate into the space flight world. The upside is that the work needed to create the paperwork is very interesting.

My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
The advice I would give to anyone interested in my occupation is to learn to type and develop your writing and communications skills. Also, one should evaulate their ability and desire to work in teams. As Payload Scientists, all of my work is accomplished by working in a team-oriented environment. Interms of education, one should focus on the life science but do not limit your education to only life sciences. Try to take courses that will expose you to engineering, physics/ chemistry and other non-life science areas, and business and project management. The diversity of functional groups for a space flight project touch on all these areas.

Outside of work, my interests include kayaking, hiking, bicycling, and geocaching.

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