An Interview with David O'Brien

Meet Dawn Participating Scientist David O'Brien
The following interview is a written interview conducted by the Outreach team at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)
Dawn participating scientist David O'Brien

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Dawn mission?

We will be studying primitive bodies that date back to the beginning of the Solar System and give a picture of the types of bodies that went on to form the planets. At the same time, the targets of the Dawn mission, Vesta and Ceres, are large enough that they have likely undergone many of the processes that planets themselves go through.

How are you participating in Dawn science as it relates to the Dawn mission?

I study the collisional and dynamical evolution of the asteroid belt, and will be working with the Dawn team to help put Vesta's evolution and cratering history in the context of the evolution of the asteroid belt as a whole.

What are some of the challenges that accompany your job with the Dawn mission?

I think the hardest thing at this point is that we have to prepare for what we're going to see do when Dawn gets to Vesta, knowing full well that Vesta will likely surprise us.

Describe your thoughts and feelings as the Dawn spacecraft is approaching at Vesta?

I'm excited. I've never been part of a spacecraft team before, and am really looking forward to getting the first data, and then increasingly better data, and working as part of a team to help understand Vesta.

What are the most critical aspects of your job in the next several months in preparation for Vesta arrival?

A lot of my work over the next several months will focus on learning as much as possible about the impact environment of Vesta, such as the size distribution of asteroids that collide with it, the probability and velocity distribution of impacts, and the relation between impactor size and crater size that may apply to Vesta.  I'll also be developing a computer model to help interpret the cratering record of Vesta once Dawn starts taking data.

What are your leisure time activities?

I enjoy hiking, backpacking, bicycling, and traveling, and for more relaxing activities I like reading, music, and building and playing didgeridoos (an ancient Australian aboriginal instrument).

Do you have a yet-to-be-achieved life goal?

I don't really have a single goal, but there are a lot of places I'd like to travel someday. A few years ago I decided that I wanted to compete in the Furnace Creek 508 bicycle race in California, and will be doing that this October.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a scientist, or maybe an engineer.

At what point did you determine that you would pursue a career in space science? Tell about the path that led you to this field.

I have always been interested in astronomy, and science in general. In college I majored in applied physics and worked in a lab over the summer. I didn't find the work particularly interesting, so I decided to look around the astronomy department to see who might have a job available for the next summer. I went to see a few people that I knew of, but happened to be out of their offices that day. The first person that happened to be in their office was Steve Squyres, and I got a job doing some work for the Cassini mission. That got me interested in planetary science specifically, and I decided to pursue it in graduate school.

Who inspired you? Why?

My parents were always very supportive and helpful to me as I pursued my interests, and I had several excellent teachers in high school who encouraged me to learn as much as I could and to think critically and independently, which was incredibly important as I began to pursue a career in science.

What subjects were you interested in as a young student?

Not surprisingly, I liked math and all fields of science, from biology to physics.

What was your favorite book as a child and why?

My aunt and uncle got me a book called Travelers in Space and Time by Patrick Moore, which was a tour of the universe from the Solar System through the furthest objects we know about. I read it cover-to-cover multiple times, and that's what really began my interest in astronomy. I still have that book on my shelf.

What advice would you give to aspiring engineers or scientists?

I think that one of the most important things that someone can do is to explore as many areas as possible and not limit themselves or let themselves get too narrowly focused into one little sub-field. A lot of the most important problems really require a multidisciplinary approach.

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