California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) alumnus Nicholas Ruoff (B.S., Computer Science – Class of 2007) never imagined his studies would lead him to a job on Mars. Yet today, as an employee at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Nick is part of the team charged with image processing for the unmanned probes now hard at work exploring the red planet. Steps caught up with him recently and asked how it all came to be.

STEPS: What is the nature of your position at JPL?

NICK: I am a member of the Multimission Image Processing Laboratory (MIPL) team. I do image processing for the two Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, as well as the Mars Phoenix Lander. Imaging data are sent back to Earth from all three spacecraft and processed at JPL. Most data are automatically processed by MIPL software, while some products, like generating stereo mosaics and 3D terrain meshes, require manual intervention. My job is to ensure that all processing is completed on a tactical timeline and without issue. Some examples of products we generate are slope maps, reachability maps, and surface roughness maps. Our primary users of these types of products are the Rover Planners. From these maps, Rover Planners determine safe driving paths and where to place the robotic arms for performing science operations.

STEPS: How did you get your position?

NICK: I heard about an Early Career Hire (ECH) program at JPL where they provide recent graduates the opportunity for practical experience in their fields of study after college. They were also very interested in computer science majors who had an understanding and interest in how scientific instruments work, so this seemed like a perfect match. I submitted my resume to sections where I was interested in working and a short time later I was traveling to Pasadena for an interview. I spent a half-day interviewing with different people and touring the JPL campus. And now here I am, a JPL employee.

STEPS: Was it part of your career plan?

NICK: Yes and no. Throughout college I was never really sure what I wanted to do after I graduated. I knew I wanted a degree in computer science but had no idea in what direction to go. I ended up taking a physics course (Computer Interfacing and Control) where we got to work with microcontroller devices. For our final project, we designed and built a simple robot that used IR sensors to guide itself down a hallway. As soon as we started on that final project, I knew that was the type of work I wanted to do.

STEPS: How did CSUSM help you prepare for the position?

NICK: CSUSM had a very rigorous computer science and physics curriculum. Most professors required the student to really focus on and understand the underlying principles of the subject at hand. My professors also taught me to be very thorough with my work and how to interact effectively in a group environment, which is essential at a place like JPL.

STEPS: Were there any professors that stand out in your experience?

NICK: Yes definitely. Dr. Edward Price stands out in my CSUSM experience. In fact, the entire physics department stands out. They not only do an excellent job of instruction, but they also do an excellent job of helping students and encouraging them to explore new ideas. They were always willing to make themselves available, whether it was for help with homework, career advice, or just to discuss some random topic. They actually made me feel more like a peer than a student.

STEPS: What does it feel like to be part of so grand a project?

NICK: You see NASA Missions covered on the news or TV and you are watching history unfold in front of your eyes. You see people furthering human understanding of life, Earth, and our Universe. Now I am actually working on these missions and helping to advance human knowledge in all of those areas. It feels truly amazing!

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Picture of Nicholas Ruoff

Notable Quote:

"CSUSM had a very rigorous computer science and physics curriculum. Most professors required the student to really focus on and understand the underlying principles of the subject at hand. My professors also taught me to be very thorough with my work and how to interact effectively in a group environment, which is essential at a place like JPL."

Nicholas Ruoff,
CSUSM Class of 2007