The Planetary Society
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Tony DeRose  –  computer graphics scientist
Click for larger image " To me the greatest spin off (from the space program) was to entice an entire generation of eager youngsters into the sciences."
How were you motivated to choose your particular field?
  I can't remember a time when I didn't know that I wanted to become a scientist of some kind. In elementary school I was involved in science every way my parents and I could think of. From reading constantly about every aspect of science, to participating in seminars hosted by our local community college.

In 7th grade I was fortunate to have an inspiring science teacher, Mr. Belknap. Rather than treating my constant questions as a nuisance, he nurtured my curiosity by spending countless hours with me after school, helping me with projects in various scientific disciplines. One particularly memorable project was model rocketry. Realizing that I wanted to know how high my rockets were going, he cleverly used the opportunity to teach me the basics of trigonometry. Experiencing the real–world effectiveness of non–trivial mathematics at such an early age cemented my interest in applied math.

In college I decided to major in physics as a way to further my love of applied math. While in college I discovered the newly emerging field of computer graphics, and found that it too relied on applied math. Moreover, it had two advantages over physics as a career. First, I felt I was more likely to make a substantial contribution in a young field such as computer graphics rather than a 400–year–old field such as physics. Second, computer graphics by its nature is visual, meaning that it had the potential to be appreciated by many more people than the relatively esoteric beauty of physics.

There is a simple reason that I chose science as a career at a very young age –– it was without question the space program. It seems to me that the greatest spin off of the space program wasn't Tang, Velcro, or even micro–electronics. To me the greatest spin off was to entice an entire generation of eager youngsters into the sciences. It saddens me that my children may not have a comparable galvanizing endeavor to look to for inspiration. I hope the Mars Millennium Project is a step in that direction.

  Click for larger image
What can you share about your creative process?
    As a society we put considerable emphasis on problem solving skills. To be sure, they are important, but I'm struck by how little emphasis we place on developing the skills necessary to pick good problems to work on.

As a researcher I find that I spend almost as much of my time and effort making sure that I'm working on the right problems as I spend trying to solve them. I constantly find myself reevaluating the importance of the problems I'm working on. After all, there's only a small number of problems we can work on in our careers, so its critical we choose them wisely.

I also find it helpful to work on two or three problems at a time. That way if I get stumped on one, there's another just waiting for my attention. Having multiple active projects also opens the door to serendipity. On two occasions I've been delighted to discover unexpected but intimate relationships between seemingly independent topics. Those insights led to breakthroughs that I would not have made otherwise.

What ideas do you have for a future human community on Mars?
  One of the things that I find most stimulating in a vibrant community is diversity. Diversity in talent (the arts should be represented in addition to the sciences), in culture, and in age. One way to ensure diversity in age is to have extended families in residence. That way, children as well as seniors would be present to enrich the entire community. If I have my way, my family will be the first to sign up!  
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