Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Chris Piker is passionate about space – outer space, that is. Piker, a scientific programmer for the Physics Department and the NASA Space Program, joined Donald Gurnett’s Radio and Plasma Wave team in 2006. In a recent conversation, Piker said, “The University of Iowa has been involved with space since the beginning. We've had instruments visit almost every planet in the solar system, but we're not a big-name school. Take the Cassini mission to Saturn for instance. If you look at the list of other institutions that had instruments on Cassini, it was MIT, major European research centers, Stanford, places like that, and then Iowa. We're running in that crowd and I don't only want us to compete, I want us to shine.” 

According to research scientist William Kurth, “Chris shines in the department for his work ethic and willingness to support any effort that comes his way. He enthusiastically joins new efforts to which he believes he can provide useful contributions. Whether it be developing new code, managing code versions in a sensible way, providing efficient data management ideas, or simply pitching in to support a project.” 

In his role, Piker creates software that converts and archives the raw data coming from spacecraft into properly calibrated and formatted information that can be used in scientific research. According to Piker, “Just about everything we send into space is a prototype. That requires a lot of custom software. I’m kind of a middleman between spacecraft and scientists.”  

Kurth goes on to say, “Chris has become the go-to person for archiving space data, developing new data handling and analysis processes, and developing data systems for new missions, as he has for Juno and is currently doing for TRACERS (Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites). He is a reliable source for solving computing issues for anyone who asks.” 

It's easy to understand the glowing review of Piker’s work. According to his colleagues, Chris is the ultimate team player. In talking with Piker, he spends more time complementing his colleagues than taking credit for his efforts. He says, “It's amazing working here. I work with brilliant and friendly people, two qualities which do not always go together, but they do around here. For over 40 years, software developed right here, in Van Allen Hall, has turned trillions of raw space data measurements into fluid scientific displays and analysis. I'm proud to carry on the work of Larry Granroth and other programmers before me and hope to assist talented new software engineers as they build their skills."  

Piker would also like to thank the people that maintain Van Allen Hall's physical spaces, saying "I’d like to personally thank Jerry TeBockhorst and Ted Hesseltine for making UI Physics and Astronomy look good before our national and international peers.”  

Craig Kletzing, Donald A. and Marie B. Professor of Physics & Astronomy, perhaps puts it best: “Chris is an outstanding representative of the best of our university staff, showing those outside UI the best qualities of our staff. In this way, he makes a very positive impact on the UI’s reputation as seen by the outside world.”