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Where are they now: Lassonde and Science alumni land high-calibre positions at NASA

“NASA/JPL Sign” by NASA/JPL-Caltech / CC BY

For many students studying geomatics within earth and space science and engineering, securing a position at an international space agency is not only a monumental accomplishment but also a dream come true. Alumni from York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering transformed their career aspirations into reality, landing roles at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California Institute of Technology after graduation.

Lassonde alumnus Nacer Naciri conducted his PhD with Professor Sunil Bisnath, while Athina Peidou conducted her PhD under the supervision of Professor Spiros Pagiatakis, who also supervised Panagiotis Vergados, an alumnus from the Physics and Astronomy department in the Faculty of Science. The three are now established researchers who look back fondly at their university days, eager to inspire others and share their journeys with those aspiring to tread a similar path.

Athina Peidou

athina peidou - Geodesist at NASA JPL
Athina Peidou

Athina Peidou (PhD, 2020), is currently a Geodesist at NASA JPL, where she works on space geodesy applications; particularly reference frames, precise orbit positioning and gravity field recovery from satellite observations derived from gravity recovery and climate experiment (GRACE) – and its nearly identical successor, GRACE-Follow On. The two GRACE satellite missions provide a continuous record of gravitational changes driven by mass redistribution occurring on Earth; to improve understanding of climate change and the Earth’s structure and processes.   

“Working at JPL is an unmatched experience; the lab offers great opportunities and a growth culture,” says Peidou. “Researchers whose work I was reading during my graduate studies are now my co-workers, with whom I have the opportunity to discuss any idea or question popping into my head on a daily basis. The JPL community is a class of its own.”

Peidou has been working on GRACE since her PhD, under the supervision of Professor Pagiatakis, an expert in geodesy and geodynamics. During her PhD, Peidou was responsible for addressing different artifacts on maps derived by gravity field measurements. Not only did Peidou successfully identify the cause of the artifacts, but she also developed a new technique combining various gravity field measurements to help improve analysis.

“I’m very grateful for my time at York and Lassonde; the School is truly a gem,” says Peidou. “My experience there helped me blossom. The research opportunities in geomatics and space engineering were diverse and exposed me to various interesting topics. I especially appreciate working with Professor Pagiatakis – he’s the reason I chose to study at Lassonde, his research is known all over the world.”

Panagiotis Vergados

Panagiotis Vergados - Research Technologist at NASA JPL
Panagiotis Vergados

Panagiotis Vergados (PhD, 2011), a Research Technologist at NASA JPL who also conducted his PhD research under the supervision of Professor Pagiatakis shared similar sentiments about his experience.

“My PhD research was the stepping stone that helped me land a postdoctoral fellowship under NASA’s Postdoctoral Program (NPP); only 12 fellowships are awarded globally per year,” says Vergados. “After finishing my postdoc, I was looking for a full-time job when my boss said, ‘where are you going, there’s an opening for you here!’ He drafted an offer and now I’ve been here for 12 years.”

Currently, Vergados’ day-to-day at NASA JPL includes a range of research and management work. Some of this work is related to his PhD research in the field of space physics, which focused on understanding how radio wave signals interact with the Earth’s ionosphere and interfere with GPS, to inform the development of corrective measures. He is also using GPS signals to study climate evolution and applying principles he learned at York to conduct research related to planetary physics.

In addition, Vergados has gone back to his roots serving as an adjunct professor and working alongside Professor Pagiatakis at York to co-supervise their student’s research.

“I’m truly elated with and immensely proud of the achievements and successes of Athina and Panagiotis,” says Professor Pagiatakis. “After so many early mornings and late nights in our lab, their determination, endurance, thoughtfulness, and willingness to pursue their aspirations and conquer the unknown, have definitely earned them bright careers. It’s so wonderful to see their professional and intellectual growth throughout the years; I’m confident they will achieve many more amazing milestones. My advice to them is to stay focused and stay connected!”

Nacer Naciri

Nacer Naciri - Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA JPL
Nacer Naciri

Nacer Naciri (PhD, 2023) is a Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA JPL. He first began his educational journey in Europe before coming to Lassonde. Deciding to pursue his PhD with a focus on global navigation satellite systems such as GPS, under the supervision of Professor Bisnath who is a veteran in this field of work, was an easy choice.

“I had a really good experience working with Professor Bisnath; I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.” says Naciri. “A lot of the work I did at Lassonde helps me in my current position, including the coding languages and presentation skills I learned.”

Naciri’s PhD research was primarily focused on using various techniques to achieve precise positioning at the centimetre level for GPS and similar satellite systems. This experience helped him secure his current position at NASA JPL where he conducts similar research, focusing on multi-global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) and multi-frequency processing for precise point positioning (PPP).

“Our roles as supervisors are not to just support research, but to get to know our students,” says Professor Bisnath. “We make an effort to understand what their interests are, customize individual research plans and use our experience and global research network to mentor each student. Our responsibilities don’t end after graduation; we follow each student after their degree to support their career decisions, help them connect with contacts, and maintain communication beyond their time at Lassonde and York.”

Peidou, Vergados and Naciri are three of many alumni who have built a strong foundation of knowledge and support across Lassonde and York – helping them accomplish tremendous success in their career endeavours.

Learn more about the experiences and inspiring journeys of other Lassonde alumni.