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  • Writer's pictureLakshmi Pratury

#50over50: Jakob Van Zyl

The Person Behind Personality in my #50over50 is a space scientist who was closely involved in NASA's Mars mission of searching for life on the red planet: Jakob vanZyl. Jakob's journey also incorporates a lot of Curiosity which coincidentally was the name of the rover that explored Mars: He reinvented himself to become an entrepreneur in order to apply the data from space into something useful on earth in the field of agriculture. Know more about Jakob here!

When I was a kid, I used to be very upset with the name 'Valentina Tereshkova.' I always wanted to be the first woman in space and I was heartbroken when I found out that Valentina has already done it. I finally got over my heartbreak but never lost the interest to get to know people who are behind the scenes of space magic.

So, it was quite thrilling for me to meet Jakob Van Zyl, aka Japie, almost a decade ago in London. He was part of the scientific team that was responsible for the launch of the MARS Rover. Jakob spent all his professional life as a scientist at JPL in Pasadena, California. He is someone who took every opportunity that was given to him and exceeded all expectations. A boy from Opuwo, Namibia, with a population 7,500, designed himself to be a doctoral graduate from CalTech and became an accomplished scientist at JPL. He travels across the globe spreading the wonder of science while also finding ways to meander through mountains on Mars … albeit virtually through the rover. 

One of the reasons that I love curating talks is that you get to know the real personality of a speaker when you are preparing with them behind the scenes. Some are divas, some are sweet, some detail-oriented while others want to wait till the last minute to hand over their talk. Jakob was a dream to work with. We could agree on the content of his talk and he made it even more interesting by adding the latest images from Mars as the Rover landed on the planet only a little over a year ahead of his talk in India. He brought in the latest images being sent live from Mars. The reality of the work is so unbelievable that it almost feels like science fiction. 

While preparing for his talk, we spoke a lot about the life of a scientist and I have come to appreciate the inherent anonymity that the most brilliant minds. It takes over a decade and thousands of individuals to work together to complete a single mission and none of their names would ever be rolling off the tongues of future generations as role models. We remember Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin or the rover 'Curiosity' but do we remember the name of even a single engineer who built the machines that carried them to success? In today’s world, where many would pay to get their name printed on the front page even before their product makes any impact, it is refreshing to be around people who do not care if you ever know their name as long as their product reaches its goal. As I got to know Jakob over the years, I have really enjoyed these conversations with an increased admiration toward the scientific community.

When I recently visited Jakob and his wife Kalfie, who was his childhood sweetheart, at their home in Pasadena, California, two things totally caught me off guard. After being a scientist for 33 years, Jakob decided to be an entrepreneur and become a part of a venture fund. He is part of an organization called Hydrosat that takes space imagery and turns it into products for agriculture. He said that he was putting his knowledge about space for a whole new use. Jakob wanted to see how all this data that is collected could be put to good use; that he wanted to spend the next few years looking at the application of data. However, it was really a tough choice for him because JPL and the scientific community have been his home away from home all his life. And that’s where having a partner like Kalfie is a great asset. She is a great supporter of all that he wants to be and encouraged him to take the risk so as to not have any regrets later. 

The second thing that I discovered about them is their love for making things with their hands. They bought a house that was over 100 years old and painstakingly rebuilt it into a beautiful home. The 'before and after' pictures are quite unbelievable. There is no large renovation crew or expert consultants – they did this completely on their own. And their love to build is not limited to making their own home. They told me that they love going on vacations with a group of friends where they build homes for the poor or build schools in remote areas.

As I flew out of LA, I thought of Japie, about his love for everything around him – for his childhood sweetheart, for the home they built together, for the science that reaches far corners of the space and now his venture that brings back all that is learned from space to something that can be useful to a farmer that ultimately could translate into food on our table. I admire his penchant for learning and for his ability to leave a legendary career in order to start from the ground up as an entrepreneur in a quest to expand the horizons of his own mind. I think that what he is doing is the true purpose of living – to lean as far as possible over the ledges of learning, casting aside all your past experience to make room for the wonders of new discoveries that await you! 

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