When NASA needs to solve complex problems, it searches for the best and brightest minds to take on the challenge. But they value more than just intelligence—people whose brains work in a unique way are also vital. Dan Burger is one of those people.
“I brought him on board with my astrophysics research group originally because we were dealing with these massive amounts of data from space telescopes, and I needed help from someone who had Dan’s unique talents to help us look for patterns and data,” says Keivan Stassun, Stevenson Professor of Physics and Astronomy.
Stassun’s son also has autism, so he understands that people on the autism spectrum think in a way that can sometimes make life difficult but is also often a valuable tool in the workplace. He hoped that Dan could help him make sense of data from the Kepler Telescope that other NASA employees just couldn’t wrap their brains around.
“I think my greatest skill is I see things differently from other people,” Dan says.
In response to the assignment, Dan developed an interactive software program called Filtergraph that allows NASA to visualize large amounts of data from their Kepler Telescope. They can twist and turn the data in different ways until they see the patterns they need.
“Using Dan’s software tool, we were just able to slice and dice the data, spin it around in different ways, until something visually popped,” says Stassun.
With Dan’s help, NASA has found a new method of judging the size and age of stars based on how vigorously they flicker in the images captured by the telescope. This information could be a major breakthrough in our scientific understanding of the workings of space.
Many people with autism struggle to find employment due to the difficulty they may have with eye contact, communication skills, or other abilities that tend to be valued in the workplace. However, Dan and others like him are living proof that people with autism can be amazing assets in the workplace—they may just need a little bit of help finding their perfect fit.
Check out the video below to see Dan’s work in action.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?