University of Redlands physics student TJ Carson ’22 says he always knew that he wanted to be a scientist. In pursuit of that goal, he attended his first meeting of the rocket propulsion club during his second semester.
Carson was drawn to the club because he sees space exploration as one of the more exciting parts of the field. “I was immediately hooked,” he says. “The club was founded as a way for students to get involved with aerospace pursuits and for engineering students to have access to hands-on projects and career resources.”
He quickly befriended the club’s president at the time, Anthony Razo ’21. Within months, Carson was the group’s vice president and helped navigate its transition from a rocket propulsion club to an established chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS).
Projects and professional development
SEDS is an international student organization that promotes space exploration and development through educational and engineering projects. The SEDS Redlands group, which has 13 members who represent a variety of programs, meets twice a month to discuss and develop projects and outreach opportunities. After Razo graduated, Carson became the club’s president.
“After becoming SEDS Redlands, the club became a lot more than just launching rockets,” says Carson. “Every NASA control center is its own world, and they need people with all different kinds of skillsets to run them—from finance and management to engineering, and even designers and communications professionals. At Redlands, we have an interdisciplinary advantage because of the diversity of majors, whereas most SEDS chapters are at engineering schools.”
Currently, the club is working on two projects. The first is a technical engineering project, in which members are designing a small instrument that can be implemented on a satellite. The second is Project Outreach, a program that involves visiting different high schools and talking about the possibilities of space exploration and subsequent career opportunities.
“We give presentations about space and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) in order to break down common false perceptions about what it means to be involved in space exploration in order to make the industry more accessible,” says Carson. “It can often seem superhuman, but that’s not really the case. It just takes passion and dedication.”
One of the club’s overarching goals is to encourage members to envision and prepare for a future career in space exploration. In November 2021, five members attended SpaceVision, a three-day annual conference facilitated by SEDS USA for students to engage with each other and industry professionals. This year’s event was hosted at the NASA Space Center in Houston, Texas, and Carson was elected to the SEDS USA national board of directors during the conference.
“It was amazing,” he says of the experience. “The keynote speakers were industry leaders who spoke about important topics, and there was a career fair where companies recruit students for internships. Getting a chance to talk to those already in the industry was a cool opportunity to hear from people who are doing what you dream of doing.”
Asking questions, thinking creatively
While Carson views his involvement in SEDS as a fun extracurricular activity, it also directly translates to his academic life. “SEDS has helped me realize my work in the context of the field,” he says. “As a physicist, I got exposed to what it means to do science in the real world, and it has led me down a path to see where I belong. Exploring the opportunities available to me allows me to make informed decisions about my future.”
In addition to gaining experience through SEDS, Carson has embarked on his own research projects with faculty members as part of the Student Science Research Program. Working with Professor Eric Hill, he proposed a project to develop a temperature model that would ultimately reveal the impact of increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Collaborating with Professor Martín Hoecker-Martinez, the faculty advisor for SEDS Redlands, Carson created a method for determining the source location of microplastics that have been distributed in the atmosphere.
Both Hill and Hoecker-Martinez have had a tremendous impact on Carson. “They’re very invested in their students,” he says. “They’re really willing to listen and embrace whatever their students are trying to do and to help them pursue their interests.”
Carson sees his time at Redlands as the first step on a path to a career as a scientific researcher. Through SEDS Redlands, he was given the rare opportunity work with student engineers on projects that have a purpose. As a physics student, he became a better scientist by asking questions that fueled his independent research.
Looking to the future, Carson plans to build on the foundation he laid at Redlands, knowing that he’s leaving an important legacy behind with SEDS Redlands. “I want to keep learning, growing, and mastering my craft,” he says. “I really value the people I met and the opportunity I had to make a difference at Redlands. Starting something new that was created for a specific purpose has been really rewarding.”