Professor Scores 'NASA Trifecta'

Professor Scores 'NASA Trifecta'
Rakesh Mogul

Rakesh Mogul remembers the day he knew he wanted to go into space. “I was in fourth grade, staring at a poster of an astronaut, and I thought, 'That's what I want to do.' ”

He never made it aboard the shuttle, but the Cal Poly Pomona chemistry professor found a challenging role in the rarefied air of space researcher and educator, scoring what College of Science Dean Donald O. Straney calls “a NASA trifecta.”

Mogul has been awarded a fellowship for this summer and fall from NASA's Astrobiology Institute to study extremeophiles, tiny organisms that can survive under the harshest conditions and most likely would be the first signs of life that explorers would find outside Earth. He also guides Cal Poly students and would-be-teachers on a desert journey in early spring that immerses them in the process and joys of hands-on research, and he has a share of a $1.4 million grant for NASA Liftoff, which will establish academies for teachers at three CSU campuses for the next two summers.

“Teaching is an art form,” he says. “If you want to succeed into the classroom, you have to be excited.”  

The Spaceward Bound Expedition, which he led in March and will repeat next year, took teachers on a weeklong journey to Mars — or at least the closest thing to it in Southern California: the Mojave National Preserve near Death Valley. The group studied soil microorganisms and geologic formations and collected samples before returning in the evening to the old Zzyzx Mineral Springs Spa, now known as the CSU Desert Studies Center.

“It was a lightbulb event,” Mogul says. “We spent the day exploring and came back to the station for a collaborative discussion of the day's results. It's not about a textbook. It's not even about knowing the answer. It's about the process of discovering an answer together with students, scientists and professors as peers.”

Great teaching does not start in the classroom, he says, and inspiring students isn't difficult if you know how to trigger their curiosity. “It's my job to show them where the door of understanding is and to help them unlock their passions for science and NASA.”

For Mogul, that door leads to the lab and out to the field, where students can experiment, probe, hypothesize and, most important, discover.  Mogul plans to follow up on that principle with NASA Liftoff, which shows educators how to apply the study of space to teaching the next generation of scientists and astronauts. “The goal is to attract, train and retain science teachers by teaching from the perspective of NASA while using research as a motivating and inspirational force.”

Ask Mogul about his research into extremeophiles or how to sterilize space probes to ensure that they don't contaminate the places they're exploring, and you can expect an animated explanation that a even a non-scientist can understand.  

Lately, though, he admits his thoughts have been “very terrestrial.” He and his wife, Cal Poly Pomona sociology professor Stacy McGoldrick-Mogul, had a baby boy, Jahan, six months ago.

“He's our own extremeophile. We'll see how well he can adapt to the extreme environment of Southern California,” Mogul says.