JPL Researchers Win Presidential Early Career Awards

Published : Monday, July 29, 2019 | 10:31 AM

Three employees from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, received the highest honor given by the U.S. government to scientists and engineers beginning their research careers. They are among 18 NASA and six Caltech recipients of the honor. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

The award recognizes recipients’ potential to advance the frontiers of scientific knowledge and their commitment to community service, as demonstrated through professional leadership, education or community outreach. The awardees were celebrated by White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier and the National Science Foundation in a ceremony at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in Washington on July 25, 2019.

The JPL recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers(PECASE), named by President Trump, are:

Laurie Barge, for innovative fuel-cell based research; John Reager, for analysis of terrestrial global water cycles; and Jonathan Sauder, for demonstrating innovative technologies to enable a new class of space missions.

Barge, an astrobiologist, said she was “very pleasantly surprised and very honored” to attend the ceremony with her fellow NASA scientists.

Three JPL researchers win Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, given those that excel in their early career. Pictured are the NASA awardees after the ceremony in Washington on July 25, 2019, including Laura Barge (front row, second from left) and Johnathan Sauder (second row, second from right). Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

She describes her work as an innovative approach to the search for life. “We combined two areas of expertise at JPL: electrochemistry and astrobiology. The fuel cell is usually used to produce energy, but we used it to imitate systems that produce energy in nature. This can simulate deep-sea vents but could also be applied to environments where life might survive on other worlds.” Barge said that by working in astrobiology and incorporating fuel cells, she learned that the combination could help scientists figure out what might fuel life, or even the origin of life, in other environments.

John Reager is being honored for his work on the GRACE mission, studying Earth’s water cycle by measuring groundwaterfloods and drought. This helps him and his colleagues study how extremes of water vary with time and climate change.

“We’re kind of like doctors, except wherea doctor might listen to your heart with a stethoscope and take your temperature with a thermometer, our stethoscopes are satellites,” said Reager. “Water is just another one of those vital signs of the planet that tell us how healthy the planet is, how it’s changing over time, and what its prognosis is.”

The other award recipient from JPL, Jonathan Sauder, is a senior mechatronics engineer in the Technology Infusion group. He is being honored for his roles as lead mechanical engineer onRainCube (the first radar in a CubeSat), mechanical development of the KaPDA antenna, and as a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Fellow and principal investigator for a “Clockwork” Venus rover mission concept enabled by mechanical technology.

“We’re looking for new technology that could change the way we do missions, whether that be for Venus or CubeSats,” Sauder said, describing his work. “The team behind me at JPL has been really incredible,” he added. “There’s only one individual’s name on the award, but none of this would have been possible without a group effort behind it.”

“Laurie Barge, John Reager and Jonathan Sauder exemplify the caliber and variety of JPL research,” said JPL director Michael Watkins. “They also show exceptional promise – not just in the ways they are advancing scientific knowledge, but in how they champion community service through professional leadership, education or public outreach.”

NASA chief scientist James Green said all the NASA recipients “were selected for what they have already accomplished, but more importantly, we expect they will reach even higher goals in the future. They are shining stars.”

In all, 314 federal researchers received PECASE awards this year. Created to highlight the importance of science and technology for America’s future, the early-career awards foster innovative developments in science and technology, increase awareness of careers in science and engineering, provide recognition to the scientific missions of participating agencies, and enhance connections between research and challenges facing the nation.

For a complete list of NASA award winners, visit:

For a complete list of Caltech award winners, visit:

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