Dr. Michael Hecht, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
What was your first job?
I have worked as far back as I can remember. Evenings, weekends, and summers, in more-or-less chronological order, I shoveled snow, mowed lawns, wrapped and boxed electrical tape, babysat, bussed tables, washed dishes, waited tables at a deli (yum), made sandwiches, sold Fuller brushes and Great Books of the Western World, worked as a plumber's assistant, and programmed computers (in the early 1970s that was a very different proposition than it is today). At college, for work-study, I served food, worked in the college bakery (one of my favorites), maintained the undergraduate physics laboratories, and tutored football players in the subtleties of calculus. My first "real" job was at a small company in Cambridge, MA by the name of "American Science and Engineering." Best known for their airport x-ray machines, they were responsible at the time for data analysis from the first ever X-ray astronomy satellite, Small Astronomy Satellite 1, nicknamed Uhuru (freedom) after its launch in Kenya, . Uhura was a landmark in x-ray astronomy, discovering many of the celestial objects that led to our understanding of phenomena like black holes and neutron stars. I was first part of a team responsible for processing box after box of magnetic data tapes. While the results were tremendously exciting, the work itself was boring. But I was soon transferred to a job more to my liking, involving development and testing of new instruments for future missions.
What got you interested in science?
I think I was just built that way, good at math and always wanting to know how things worked. I was a science fiction junkie as a kid - that may have contributed.
Who has been a mentor for you and how was that helpful?
I've never had an intense one-on-one relationship with a mentor. Maybe that's because I'm driven to know all aspects of a subject (even if I only know a little about each), so by necessity I learn from many different people. But I carry all those lessons around with me and regularly quote from them.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I don't know if I could have answered that question a few years ago, but now I could imagine myself spending my days playing music.