Alumni Spotlight: Brian Ottens

news story image

Twenty five years ago, Brian Ottens took an undergraduate thermodynamics course at University of Maryland taught by CEEE Director Dr. Reinhard Radermacher. He received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the A.J. Clark School of Engineering in 1999 and then went on to obtain a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from Johns Hopkins University. 

As a sophomore in college, Ottens didn’t realize that the knowledge he gained in that thermodynamics class would be used daily in his life, both professionally and personally, more than two decades later as a Chief Engineer at NASA. 

Uses knowledge gained at UMD 25 years later 

“I use the knowledge of thermodynamics I gained in Dr. Radermacher’s class almost daily,” Ottens said. “I attribute that to his teaching style and selection of problems, which were really “sticky” allowing me to hold on to the information for decades.”

Ottens has had an extensive career at NASA working in all areas of their engineering and research portfolio – Science, Human Exploration and Operations, Aeronautics Research, and Space Technology. 

A career out of this world

For the past 5 years Ottens has served as the chief engineer with a group that searches for biosignatures and habitability in the solar system. They do so by making sophisticated chemical analysis tools for landers, rovers, and rotorcraft.

His daily duties involve system design and development of miniature chemical labs.  These systems apply energy to a sample (heat with an oven or shoot it with a laser), process the resulting gas, analyze that gas for chemical properties, and process the data for transmission back to Earth. Once on Earth the data is analyzed for information, such as diversity of carbon molecules and the presence of compounds that compose cell walls.

Prior to working at NASA, Ottens worked at Ford Motor Company designing and optimizing the manufacture of minivans and on the front lines of keeping waterways clean at a nearby wastewater treatment plant.

In his free time, Ottens enjoys growing shiitake mushrooms. Ottens attributes the success of growing mushrooms to achieving the right humidity at the right time.

“Once they get started, mushroom cultivation is basically all about humidity control, and I learned how to interpret a psychrometric chart in Dr. Radermacher’s class.”

Published September 22, 2020