Growing up on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington State, Conan Viernes had a penchant for science and math. But, he discovered it wasn't always easy to stay focused on schoolwork. "The biggest hurdle I faced was being raised in a small, remote community. Most people in my hometown are focused on finding work in an environment that faces a lot of economic and social challenge. I stayed focused on academics because my family, friends and teachers all pushed me to be the best."
His hard work paid off. He excelled in school and became valedictorian of his high school class. He won a physics scholarship to the University of Washington and became one of only seven students in the state accepted in a minority learning program called the Alliance for Learning and Vision for Under-Represented Americans.
Before starting college, Viernes interned at JPL. He returned every summer to his internship, where he worked on the Cassini ground support team and in the Microdevices Laboratory. He also supported the Europa-Vostok mission, helping with the first prototypes of a probe that may one day explore beneath the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa.
At the university, he changed his major and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering. Then it was back to JPL full time.
"Both at school and in my JPL activities, I learned that I like to have the whole, big system to work with. That's the style I enjoy. Now I'm working at JPL with the Collaborative Engineering group, helping engineers work together more efficiently." Viernes also works with the Advanced Network Technology Development group to create information systems that allow people from different NASA Centers to share information over secure lines.
Viernes is also active in undergraduate recruitment at JPL. "I want to continue to help others get the opportunities I got. And I know that it makes a big difference when someone shows an interest in a student, giving them some positive direction and advice."
When working with students, Viernes strongly recommends that they stick to their goals and keep focused on what they want to do. He's taking his own advice as he plans ahead to pursue a master's degree in his field. After all, education has been one of his main goals since he grew up in Yakima. "I blazed the way for my younger siblings and cousins to pursue a higher education. Once they saw it could be done, they realized it presented a real opportunity they could go after."