Adjunct Professor Dan Goebel is the 2016 winner of UCLA Engineering’s Professional Achievement Award. He will be honored at the UCLA Engineering Awards Dinner on February 5, 2016. A senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Goebel is internationally recognized for his expertise in electric propulsion, microwave sources, advanced plasma sources and high voltage engineering. His work has led to the development of propulsion technologies used in the NASA Dawn mission to Mars and Jupiter, space stations and satellites. Goebel holds 43 patents, is the author of nearly 300 technical and conference papers, and his many honors include membership in the National Academy of Engineering.
Dr. Goebel was recently interviewed by Bill Kisliuk, Director, Media Relations and Marketing, UCLA HSSEAS.
Their Q&A is noted below.
Q: Please describe how UCLA Engineering inspired you and contributed to your professional success.
A: I’m kind of a workaholic, so inspiration to do engineering research was never much of a problem. However, UCLA inspired me to stay in school and complete a Ph.D. so that I could do the work I wanted to do, which is much more fun that doing work that others tell you to do. I saw a lot of fascinating research topics and projects at UCLA that made me want to be that researcher and do that developmental work. I realized that being at the top of the food chain with a UCLA Ph.D. was perhaps the best way for me to accomplish that goal because I’d have the preparation I needed, the horsepower of a high degree from a school with a great reputation, and the experience and contacts necessary to do what I wanted.
It actually worked out that way.
I was hired out of grad school by a UCLA professor who was a last-minute addition to my thesis committee. My first two jobs after leaving UCLA were from people I had met in graduate school. I was recruited out of industry to go to JPL by a guy there who had followed my Ph.D. thesis for his graduate research topic, which he knew about due to the reputation of my UCLA advisor. My election to the National Academy of Engineering was championed by several of the faculty in the EE department. So contacts I made while in school at UCLA, the people at UCLA, and the reputation of the EE department in general have been the foundation of my career.
Q: Who were key mentors for you in the Electrical Engineering Department?
A: My Ph.D. advisor, the late Ted Forrester, showed me that you could be smart, successful and still be a nice guy. In his lab, I was under the supervision of a grad student named Terry Crow, who was truly my mentor during my graduate and post-graduate career. He showed me how exciting experimental plasma physics research was, gave me countless opportunities to participate in research and to try new ideas in the lab. I still spend over half my time in the lab, now late in my career, experiencing the joy of experimental research nearly every day (especially when things work). I owe all that to Terry Crow.
Q: What has been the most rewarding project of your career?
A: Back in the 1980s, fresh out of graduate school and working on the research staff at UCLA, I invented a machine called PISCES for investigating plasma (ionized gas) interactions with materials. This machine was the state-of-the-art in this field 30 years ago, and amazingly still is today. Two versions of the machine I built at UCLA were moved in the ’90s to UCSD and are still operating there. These machines have been copied by national laboratories on four continents for plasma-surface interactions research in fusion and industrial plasma processing.
The U.S. government just funded me to construct another copy of PISCES at UCLA for the development of new nano-engineered, extreme environments materials for defense and commercial applications, in collaboration with professors Nasr Ghoniem and Richie Wirz. In addition, we used a variant of this machine that I invented in the 90s called the Advance Plasma Source (APS) to spin off a start-up company that ended up on the NASDAQ. The APS is still being manufactured today by several firms in Europe and Asia for thin-film and optical coating production, and operating in Buhler Leybold Syrus optical coating machines that have dominated the production of sunglasses and optical mirrors and surfaces. Amazingly, they still haven’t used the full capabilities I put into these machines, and the longevity and international use of these inventions is particularly rewarding.
Q: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing the nation’s space program?
A: The general public is often amazed and fascinated by our scientific discoveries and achievements in space, but has difficulty relating those accomplishments and the high cost in government spending to their daily lives and jobs. Communicating effectively to the public that every one of those dollars is spent right here in the U.S. employing thousands of people, and the spin-off technologies that result change their lives and revolutionize the world, is a major challenge. More movies like “The Martian” are clearly needed for people to appreciate what we do.
On the technical side, I think power is the biggest problem. There’s been great progress in solar arrays that now produce tens of kilowatts of power in space and will soon be able to produce over a hundred kilowatts. This power, and much more, is needed for not only running large communications satellites and spacecraft going to other planets, but also for running advanced electric-propulsion systems that will get us there faster and carry more material, more cargo, and even people for a fraction of the cost of chemical rockets.
Q: Does teaching help you in your work at JPL?
A: Teaching is very rewarding to me because helping students and giving back to UCLA and to young people helps me to be a better person (which I can always use). The way that teaching helps my work at JPL is in finding and working with the students that I teach. I have the opportunity to bring what I know are bright, talented young people to JPL to do their thesis research and in some cases for us to hire them. Great students become an extension of me and together we get a lot more done than if I had to do it all myself. Working with students also infuses their excitement and enjoyment of discoveries to me and to my work. I get motivation, we often get lots of work done, and JPL gets great student research and the best new employees. Win-win-win.
Q: What would you advise a young person about studying electrical engineering at UCLA?
A: Do it, do it, do it! UCLA Electrical Engineering has a unique combination of great professors doing fascinating work in a beautiful Southern California setting. You can work on Nobel-caliber research and still make it to the ski slopes or to the beach for the weekend (not every weekend because you have to work hard, but at least some of the weekends). I also met and married a beautiful girl there! There are lots of opportunities to find research projects that excite you, and the department works hard to embrace students and make them successful. I also believe that if you hang out with clowns you become a clown, and to be successful you have to hang with the best. At UCLA you will meet and potentially work with people who will become the shakers and movers of the next generation of engineers. It’s a great environment. The connections and department reputation for excellence will propagate positively throughout your career. It’s a great place.