Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Valdez works on a range of electrochemical technologies, and he is deeply involved in fuel cell research.

When engineer Thomas Valdez talks to students, he gives them simple, practical pieces of advice.

"Be committed to success and not just try," he tells them. At the same time, he adds that they don't have to be perfect and expect an A in everything. "You have to learn to survive failure."

Then, he stresses the importance of completing assignments.

"Do your homework and be neat. Don't take homework lightly, check it for accuracy and don't be messy."

These are the same rules Valdez learned growing up in East Los Angeles and at Garfield High School, where for three years he attended classes taught by Jaime Escalante, the inspiration behind the movie "Stand and Deliver."

"Mr. Escalante really taught me discipline," he recalls. "That was not only inspiring but beneficial in the long run because discipline helps in everything you do."

Sitting in elementary school watching the Space Shuttle Columbia's inaugural flight and a visit to the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory were the initial seeds for a career that would lead him back to the Lab as an engineer.

In ninth grade, Valdez attended a special science class focused half on chemistry and half on biochemistry. From that distinctive experience he credited another teacher with shaping his attitude about science.

"Art Callahan made science fun and appealing, adding another dimension to my thinking about it," he recalls. "This helped me get through some rough spots because science has never been easy for me. I've had to work hard to learn but I'm not a quitter. I loved science so much that I've never wanted to do anything else and made the decision to put everything I have into it to succeed."

At the age of 17, Valdez started working at JPL as a part time student. After earning a master's degree in material science at UC Irvine, Valdez worked for commercial companies for a year before returning to JPL. He is now working fulltime while planning to pursue a doctorate, also in material science.

"My heart's always been in basic R and D (research and development)," he says. "That's perfect for working at JPL because I have a new challenge everyday. I don't think I've ever done the same thing twice."

Valdez works on a range of electrochemical technologies, and he is deeply involved in fuel cell research.

"My dream is to see the new generation of fuel cells I'm working on be used in space," he says. "These fuel cells run on methanol, which is an alcohol that can be synthesized from CO2, rather than the hydrogen used in current fuel cell technology."

On Mars there is CO2 in the atmosphere, so fuel can be made available to charge these cells to power robots or anything electrical. Potentially, these fuel cells could also use the CO2 humans exhale to make fuel, removing CO2 from living quarters by actively sucking the CO2 out of the air."

Beside his work, Valdez is committed to getting children enthusiastic about science and math. One of his favorite methods of teaching kids about science is to have them dress up like elements and then show them how chemical reactions occur. And who knows, there may be future scientists among the children acting out these chemical reactions.