Meet the IBEX Team: Frederic Allegrini
Senior Research Scientist Frederic Allegrini, Ph.D. has been dreaming of life as an astronaut since he was a child in the small town of Orbe, Switzerland. "I think I'm just perfect for the job," he said. "What I do every day is very close to what is required to be an astronaut, and I really want to go [to space]."
While he would like to visit space himself, Frederic spends most of his time designing and testing instruments that travel there aboard spacecraft, including IBEX. He works in the Space Science and Engineering division of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas, where he also helps teach graduate classes.
In space, IBEX will detect a range of energetic neutral atoms using two sensors, IBEX-Hi and IBEX-Lo, to make a global map of the Solar System's boundary. In the coming weeks, Frederic will lead the "cross-calibration" testing of both IBEX sensors, simultaneously, to see if they detect the same energetic neutral atoms in the same way. While IBEX-Hi detects neutral atoms with higher energies, and IBEX-Lo detects neutral atoms of lower energies, both detectors sense some neutral atoms within the same energy range. "Because the sensors have a common energy range, we plan to put both of them in the calibration chamber with the same [energetic neutral atom] beam so that we have a way to check if the sensors have the same response. It's a double check to make sure that if the sensors have a different response once in orbit, we know there is something we need to change," Frederic said.
In addition to conducting testing of the IBEX sensors, Frederic also helped design them. He worked to determine a shape that would give the IBEX-Hi sensor the greatest sensitivity, and was the lead for the background monitor, which will allow scientists to figure out if an abnormally high count of energetic neutral atoms comes from the boundary of the Solar System, or if it is a product of the ambient environment in space.
Frederic enjoys his job at SwRI, especially collaborating with other employees who are passionate about their work. He likes sharing that excitement with others, too. "One thing that I really like about my job is the enthusiasm of people when you talk about space, and how much people, especially children, are fascinated by everything that is related to space. Knowing that I'm doing something that makes people really happy is a good reward for the day," he said. He also likes teaching graduate students from the University of Texas-San Antonio space physics principles in three joint classes at SwRI.
When he was a teenager, Frederic never believed he would achieve his dream of being an astronaut, or work in space science at all. After attending small village elementary schools and secondary school in Orbe, Frederic left formal education, "fed up" with school, to begin an apprenticeship in mechanical design. At the time, he believed that only the very top students in his high school could succeed in science. Frederic said, "What I really wanted was to do astronomy or become an astronaut, but I thought that I wasn't capable. During the apprenticeship, I realized that I would not be a machine designer for my whole life. I wanted more. So I decided to go back to school."
He ended up earning a bachelor's degree in micro-mechanics, a master's degree in physics from the University of Lausanne, and finally, a Ph.D. in space physics from the University of Bern.
Frederic explained why he initially did not pursue his bachelor's degree. "I think that maybe I gave too much weight to where I was at school. I was not in the top of the class. I was in the top half, but not the top-top. I thought we had to be very good and very smart to get that far, and it's not only being smart, it's a lot of work and effort, and the motivation that everything is possible. I realize that now. It's like you're in front of a big mountain, you're not going to get to the top in one leap, you have to go slowly and at your own pace, and that's what I did. I'm perfectly capable of doing it. I just had to do one thing at a time."
After receiving his Ph.D., one of the most challenging things Frederic did was move to the United States to work at SwRI in 2002. It was quite a culture shock. "At the time, there was a lot of tension between the United States and the Middle East, and the United States and Europe. Because of the media, sometimes it seemed a little worse than it really was. It is a big cultural shock between Switzerland and Texas, and I moved at a difficult time in history, so it was a difficult choice. It was a very good move, and it was the right thing to do. I trusted myself that I could do it." Luckily, Frederic likes the south Texas heat, although he does miss hiking in the mountains.
In addition to hiking, Frederic also likes traveling, photography, astronomy, eating good food, drinking good wine, and treating himself to "good pure malts" in his free time. The variety of his interests also carries over into work. "I'm very interested in too many things, for hobbies and for work. At work, I want to do a lot of stuff, and sometimes I realize it's not possible because there is not enough time!" he said.
As much as he likes his job at SwRI and the variety of work he gets to do there, he would definitely put it on hold to travel to space. As a citizen of the European Union, Frederic hopes to apply to become an astronaut through the European Space Agency. However, they do not recruit new astronauts every year, so he has considered applying for American citizenship in order to meet the qualifications for NASA's yearly astronaut application.
In the meantime, he is content to design the instruments that give scientists new insight into our Universe, and continues to dream of one day walking in space.