SJSU and NASA Ames: Eyes to the Skies
Conrad Gabriel plays an integral role in the NASA Ames Airspace Operations Lab conducting collaborative research with Ames civil servants. Photo by Robert C. Bain.
Through 12-year-old eyes, Conrad Gabriel, ’13 Aviation, remembers being awestruck at airplanes taking off and landing at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport in his native Philippines.
Today, from the Airspace Operations Laboratory (AOL) Lab at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, he explains, “I was completely amazed by the experience and how it must feel [to fly], so that started my interest in aviation — I thought I was going to be a pilot.”
A bachelor’s degree in aviation and flight operations from San José State University launched his aviation journey. Upon graduating, he learned about SJSU’s long-standing partnership with NASA Ames and the need for simulator pilots to help with research. “I wanted the opportunity to actually practice the skills that I might need someday as a pilot and I was interested in this study because it involved air traffic communication,” he says.
Gabriel started as a test participant, using his training in communication between pilots and air traffic controllers, in his work with Connie Brasil, senior research associate at San José State University Research Foundation and NASA Ames Research Center. He helped with studies aimed to test next-generation air traffic management tools, determining how they work for air traffic controllers and managers.
Before long, Gabriel gained a deep understanding of the research simulation systems and was asked to recruit and train test pilots, then eventually conduct research himself, participating in data collection and analysis. Today, nine years later, he plays an integral role in the NASA Ames Airspace Operations Lab conducting collaborative research with Ames civil servants. Taking advantage of the opportunities that arose led him to his current focus, Upper Class E airspace operations, 60,000 feet above the National Airspace System. “It’s like you’re creating a whole new roadmap for future flight operations,” he explains. “And without it even happening fully yet. We know what vehicles may be coming in the future and we’re helping write the rules and the roadmaps for them!”
Brasil explains that SJSU students frequently find interesting career pathways into roles at Ames. “We actually look at our own SJSU students first before going out to try to find people — I’ve always been proud that we’ve done that, so it’s nice that we look within the university to get the student research assistants for Human Factors to start out.”
Gabriel’s own path into Ames was a result of this close connectivity.
He found a wealth of mentors and learning at NASA Ames. “I came from a public university but I work with folks from MIT, Stanford, and we all learn from each other,” he explains. “The type of work that everyone puts forth is equally valuable, just a different flavor from one another.” He’s been recognized with NASA Honor Awards on six team projects in 2017, 2019 and 2021.
Stepping through the doors that SJSU and NASA Ames opened for him, Gabriel moved into a world of exciting opportunities, from a dream of flying to Upper Class E, and now accepting a permanent role with NASA as a civil servant.
“My story is not the path that I thought I was going to take, but I don’t regret it for a day,” says Gabriel with a smile. “I’m happy that I kept an open mind, because when a door opens and it seems really inviting — go ahead and see where that will lead you. There are other dreams out there to follow.”