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Exploring the universe: the IB learner profile drives one alum’s work at NASA

In this Q&A, we spoke with Diploma Programme (DP) alumnus and solar system outreach professional, Johnathan Brendle. Johnathan walked us through his journey to a career in physics and aerospace at NASA. Alongside his experience with the DP, he also reflected on the importance of being knowledgeable, an IB Learner Profile attribute. Johnathan shared how his passion for knowledge and collaboration drives his work at one of the most iconic organizations in the world.

What inspired you to pursue a career in physics and aerospace?

“My family had an influence on my career path. My parents are knowledgeable in the field of engineering and aeronautics. My dad pursued a master’s in electrical engineering and when I was young, he was in the Air Force and flew jets. My mom was an aerospace engineer (rocket scientist).

I was further influenced by a TV show I used to watch on the Discovery Science Channel, which was hosted by Michelle Thaller, an astrophysicist. The program was all about how the universe works. I really loved her way of explaining complex concepts in space that made them easy to understand. I found this all incredibly interesting. Therefore, I decided to switch my university studies from engineering to physics. Later, I found out that Michelle Thaller, from the TV program I loved so much, was working at NASA’s headquarters. I ended up emailing her and we soon became friends. This is something I love about working at NASA. There is a camaraderie that gave me a new level of appreciation for what I do and for the people that I work with.”

Tell me about your role at NASA.

“I am a project support specialist in the earth science division at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. When it comes to science and space exploration, we have four divisions at Goddard and earth science is one of them. As a project support specialist, I do a little bit of everything. Essentially, I fill the gaps in whatever work or research needs to be done. I also do some public outreach and educating in terms of science, which is my favorite part of the job. I love informing others using interesting and educational scientific materials.”

What was your experience with the Diploma Programme?

“I really enjoyed the DP. The opportunities it presented me with influenced my career path and the friendships I made. It encouraged me to push myself and get ahead in understanding some of the difficult math and even some of the science that I use for my work today. In terms of making friends, my high school class was quite large which made it harder to get to know more people. The DP was a great way to establish more friendships. The crossover between the HL math and HL biology crews was great.”

How do you think being encouraged to be ‘knowledgeable’ has influenced your career?

“Being knowledgeable, or simply being informed, is significant in many aspects of life, including one’s career. In my case, since NASA’s part of the executive branch of government, it is important that I have a good understanding of how the government operates. Being knowledgeable about topics that interest you can have significance in either a local or global sense. At NASA, we engage with issues that are beyond global. Because we are stepping outside of the planet, we are having solar system significance.

It is interesting because the group of colleagues that I work with is specifically studying climate change. They are studying something that is so globally significant that it can turn us into something globally insignificant. I am surrounded by colleagues who are trying to save the planet. I feel that it is super important that I understand not just what I am working on, but what my colleagues are doing. I really enjoy learning and understanding why my colleagues are so passionate.”

What are some examples from your IB education where you demonstrated the knowledgeable attribute?

“I think having a knowledgeable attitude means you are asking questions. After classes, I would often wait until my teachers were free so that I could ask questions to have a better understanding of the topics we discussed. In the end, we all learn differently. In high school I started using textbooks a lot and tried to learn more independently. However, I think generally it is important to ask questions and gather insight from different perspectives in looking for an answer to something.

I especially realized this in my math class. With math there is usually more than one way to get to the solution. I remember the camaraderie that all my fellow students had at the time. For example, during math class, we used to come together to work on our homework to understand how everyone solved problems differently. In doing this, we recognized other perspectives, which to me is a crucial part of obtaining knowledge.”

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Johnathan Brendle is an IB DP alumnus and a project support specialist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. He is also a Solar System Ambassador at NASA. After completing his DP at Unity Reed High School in Manassas, Virginia in 2012, he obtained his Bachelor of Science in Physics from Virginia Commonwealth University. Johnathan has a diverse set of skills pertaining to earth science, physics education, science communication and photography. Johnathan’s curiosity about the world and desire to better it is at the core of his passions, as he seeks to expand his own understanding as well as that of others of the universe through his work and creative pursuits.