Peter Hung's (BS '08, PhD '16) journey in science has taken him from the Science Olympiad competition to The Aerospace Corporation, where he currently serves as a technology portfolio manager. According to Hung, Caltech provided a collaborative environment in which students could enthusiastically discuss and delve into scientific subjects without fear of being labeled a "nerd." Hung's impact extends beyond his work at The Aerospace Corporation, as evidenced by his 2013-2014 ASCIT (Associated Students of the California Institute of Technology) teaching award and his ongoing commitment to STEM outreach initiatives for students in southern California.
ENGenuity recently spoke with Hung to learn more about his professional journey and the tremendous impact of his STEM outreach.
ENGenuity: How would you describe what you're doing now and your professional contributions?
Peter Hung: I am the technology portfolio manager at The Aerospace Corporation, and I'm responsible for the internal R&D. This entails working with various subject matter experts to understand the different technologies and the landscape within the aerospace industry. I help provide guidance to both The Aerospace Corporation as well as the government customer on where we need to invest our technologies so that the United States can remain the preeminent nation in space.
ENGenuity: How did you become interested in aerospace and science?
Hung: I got into science because of Science Olympiad. Then I applied to Caltech, went there as an undergrad, stayed there as a PhD student, and it is through the SURF [Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship] program that I started doing research in nanotechnology. Sophomore year, I didn't know anything about nanotechnology but Professor Jim Eisenstein [Frank J. Roshek Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, Emeritus] suggested that I should look at research on carbon nanotubes. That's how I started my journey as a researcher and scientist. If you think about pencil lead, which is made of graphite, and you take a single sheet of that graphite, which is graphene, you roll it up into a tube and that's a carbon nanotube. It's a single atomic layer of carbon, and we were making resonators out of it, vibrating them, and using them to do mass spectrometry. So that was how I got started in the world of research.
After two summers of that research and a senior thesis, I stayed at Caltech to do my PhD. I stayed in nanotechnology throughout my PhD program, studying different materials like graphene and aluminum nitride. It is through the SURF program, which The Aerospace Corporation sponsored, where I learned about The Aerospace Corporation. When I was about to graduate, some folks at The Aerospace Corporation suggested that I apply to work there and that's how I got my job out of my PhD program. I've been here for seven years now.
ENGenuity: Is there a Caltech faculty member or class that had a significant impact on you?
Hung: The sophomore physics lab is a class I really valued, and that was taught by Dr. Frank Rice [Lecturer in Physics]. I took the class as a sophomore and later became a TA for the class as well. It was through that class where I learned the process of how to do data analysis and research. SURF was a great way to practice that, but it was being a TA for eight years for that class where I got to see what good data analysis was, and how to tease out the hardest things in a dataset. So, that's the course that really stuck with me. That was also the course that I won my ASCIT teaching award for and the inaugural R. Bruce Stewart Prize for Excellence in Teaching Physics.
ENGenuity: How has your Caltech education influenced you?
Hung: Without my Caltech education I wouldn't be where I am today. One of the things that I often tell high school students is that Caltech is a place where I can be me, a place where I can geek out and talk about science. Caltech was the first time that I felt like I fit in. In high school, I talked science and people said, "what a nerd." But at Caltech, everyone talks science. Caltech is a place where the environment allows you to grow and think like a scientist and really be immersed in science.
ENGenuity: What do you think Caltech does to facilitate that environment?
Hung: It's the collaboration on practically all problem sets. A lot of places don't have the same type of collaboration policy. Our problem sets at Caltech are hard enough that you need to work with people, which forces you to work with your colleagues and housemates. Instead of a "plug and chug" where you're done with your homework for the week in a half hour, you have to figure out how to make those leaps to connect the various theories, equations, and formulas to get the right answer. It's partially the challenging coursework but also the mentality and the setting of being expected to collaborate rather than being expected to know everything.
ENGenuity: What advice would you give to recent EAS alumni?
Hung: If you want something, always ask. If you don't ask, the answer is always no. And if the answer is no, don't take the no as an answer. Figure out what it takes to get a maybe or a yes. Most often, the answer is not just a hard no. In real life, if you need something, it is usually a "no, but." So, don't get discouraged.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story?
Hung: One of the recent books that I read and have fallen in love with is Pull Don't Push: Why STEM Messaging to Girls Isn't Working and What to Do Instead by Julie Newman (BS '14), a fellow Caltech alum and a long-time friend. The book talks about the importance of having more women in engineering and what we can all do to support that. What I love about the book is the way it ties in research results with real life examples. This is a book I'm recommending to everyone I work with on STEM outreach and it's a book that I think all of us in STEM should be reading.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite destination?
Hung: Hawaii. I've been to a couple of different Hawaiian Islands and the Big Island is one of my favorites. Most recently, I went to Oahu. I always saw pretty pictures that people took of Hawaii, and I thought, "wow, how did they take all these amazing pictures?" Then I went to Hawaii, and I realized I could take amazing pictures too because it really is that pretty.
ENGenuity: Is there a project that you're most proud of in your career?
Hung: For most of us driving around LA, whenever we are low on gas, we go to a gas station to refuel. Nothing special about that. But thinking about the 8,000 satellites in the sky, when they run out of fuel, the satellite is retired by having it deorbit and burn up as it reenters Earth's atmosphere. The International Space Station is one of the handful of exceptions to this, where the satellite is refueled on a regular basis. About a year ago, I co-led a group of government officers, contractors, and other subject matter experts in the field to identify the work needed to enable on-orbit refueling of other capabilities for future satellites. There are now numerous government groups that are interested in this capability there is also interest from the commercial and civil sectors. I think this capability is going to be one of the game changers in the aerospace industry.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Hung: I do a lot of STEM outreach, which my company sponsors. It's rewarding to know that I was the recipient of other people's STEM outreach projects to get me into science and now I'm doing the same thing for the next generation of students. I can say that over the past 18 years of STEM outreach, the projects that we've worked on have touched the lives of over 5,000 students a year, which comes to a total of around 100,000 students. Being able to touch the lives of so many students and get them into science is super rewarding to me.
ENGenuity: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Hung: It goes back to the outreach work that I'm doing, to know that I'm making a difference in so many students' lives. I'm working with a great team to put together the various outreach projects. Every morning I have an attitude of "hey, let's do this!" I wake up extra early to work on outreach work before "work" work.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Hung: Global warming and the way we're not really thinking about the future of the planet. There's so much that we should be doing as a society. There's so much that we should be talking about, doing, and making policies so that we have a sustainable future. We're not doing any of that. Not enough people are talking about it.