TMCNet:  Stamount graduate involved in Mars landing

[August 29, 2012]

Stamount graduate involved in Mars landing

Aug 29, 2012 (The Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Growing up, Alex Groce was interested in space.

Now a computer programmer, the 1994 Starmount High School graduate had the opportunity to combine his love for computers and space while working for NASA.

"When I was a kid I was really interested in space and wanted to be an astronomer," Groce said. "I got into that before computers." But computer programming was what Groce knew he always wanted to do. His love for computers grew from his mother, Carole Groce who taught computer classes at Starmount High School. His father Leonard Groce was also a teacher at the high school.

"I had been programming from when I was pretty young, and I guess that was my main interest. I always thought I wanted to do programming of some kind," he said. "My mom teaching computer is what got me interested, but I never took any classes with her." After high school, Groce received a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science and multidisciplinary studies at North Carolina State University in 1999 and continued his education at Carnegie Mellon University, where he received his PhD in 2005.

During his second summer of grad school, Groce worked at the Ames NASA Research Center in the San Francisco area.

"I worked generally on the problem of finding automatic ways for finding bugs in computer programs," he said. "If Microsoft Word crashes because of a bug, it's annoying. If a program on a space craft on Mars crashes, that's a couple billion dollars." After finishing grad school, Groce continued working with NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Los Angeles from 2005 to 2009 on the Mars rover project that recently landed.

"JPL runs most of NASA's robotics. The two years or so that I was there, I was working on testing the file system for the current Curiosity Rover," Groce said. "I was writing programs to test other programs, making it easier for other people to test systems." While with NASA, computer science came first for Groce rather than concentrating on the space aspect of the job.

"At that level, you had to be focused on your part of the job," he said. "The fact that it is in space has important implications, but it's not key to what you are looking for. There aren't different programing bugs because it is in space. However, there are bugs you can live with on Earth that are more dangerous in space." Groce left NASA in 2009 and is currently teaching computer science at Oregon State University.

"I wanted the opportunity to teach more and see how it went on my own as a professor. There are also certain things I'm interested in research wise, such as figuring out how to automatically help people fix bugs," he said. "I'd say over 50 percent of my work here is research." When the Mars Curiosity rover landed, Groce missed working at JPL but hopes to return one day.

"I was very happy when I heard it landed and it made me miss JPL," he said. "It was very exciting and still is as we get early results. It's harder now doing research from a remote location in Oregon, so one day I'm interested in returning to JPL." Reach Jessica Pickens at 835-1513 ext. 18 or ___ (c)2012 The Tribune (Elkin, N.C.) Visit The Tribune (Elkin, N.C.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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