Alumni Spotlight Shines on Physics ‘Star’ Daniel H. Chang, PhD., Class of 1985

28 years after earning dual degrees from MIT, a fellow Friar let present-day students glimpse his Jet Propulsion Lab work for NASA.

By Mark Vruno

When alumnus Dan Chang, PhD. ’85 returned to Fenwick last November, he felt right at home talking to students in the school library. Ever since immigrating to northeast Illinois from Taipei, Taiwan, in 1976, Dr. Chang has had an affinity for libraries and books.

Chang was a National Merit Scholarship Finalist in 1984-85 (Blackfriars yearbook photo).

Ten-year-old Chang spoke no English when he came to the United States. His father was a diplomat for the Taiwanese consulate in Chicago. During the summer, when their mother was working as a medical technician, his sister Anne and Dan went to the public library “almost every day,” he told the Forest Park Review eight years ago, “and I read every book about physics, space and aviation.” Before applying for a scholarship to Fenwick as an eighth grader, the future rocket scientist attended Grant-White, and then Field-Stevenson elementary schools.

“Let’s talk about the universe,” Chang engaged one group of science students last semester, as he booted up a customized PowerPoint presentation. Over the past four decades, there have been some rather astonishing developments as the field of astronomy became less Earth-centric, he told present-day Friars: “When I was in high school, we didn’t know there were other stars with planetary systems. Now, we know there are nearly 4,000 exoplanets!” (An exoplanet, or extrasolar planet, is a planet outside of our solar system.)

“Did you know there are more planets than stars in the galaxy?” Chang continued. “Small planets are common, even in the Habitable Zone, but they are too dim to see through a telescope,” he added. In astronomy and astrobiology, the circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ) is the range of orbits around a star within which a planetary surface can support liquid water given sufficient atmospheric pressure. Such complexity is par for the course for Chang, who was a straight-A student at Fenwick, a National Merit Scholar Finalist and one of three valedictorians from the Class of 1985. (Chris Hanlon and Ray Kotty are the other two.)

Chang went on to study at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He says he “held my own” at the private research university and earned a bachelor of science in aeronautics/ astronautics, then a master’s degree in dynamics/control. After moving to the West Coast to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL, see below), he would go on to a doctorate, in electrical engineering and photonics, from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2002.

Dr. Chang reunited on Nov. 22 with Math Coach Mr. Roger Finnell ’59 (center) and old pal, classmate and Fenwick Math Teacher Ray Kotty ’85.

In the aforementioned newspaper article, ’85 classmate Kotty, who has taught math at Fenwick since 1993-94, described his former Computer Club and “mathlete” teammate as “a little bit more [of] a risk-taker than the other guys in the math-club group. He was always going to go ahead and blaze his trail.” Outside of school, the two mathematical whizzes attended weekend astrophysics classes together at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium — and have remained friends over the years.

Chang told students in November, “For the record, Mr. Kotty beat me in just about every math competition at Fenwick!”

Demanding yet kind

Former Chemistry Teacher and JETS Coach Mr. Ramzi Farran (in 1985).

As a high-school student, Chang never experienced faculty legend Roger Finnell ’59 (long-timeMath Department Chairman) in the classroom per se. Mr. Finnell was — and is — moderator of Fenwick’s storied Math Competition Club. Chang fondly remembers what he calls “rigorous” teachers, including Mr. Ramzi Farran (chemistry and JETS coach) and Mr. John Polka (biology), both recently retired, as well as the late Mr. Edward Ludwig (calculus) and Fr. Jordan McGrath, O.P. (pre-calc.), who passed away in 2018.

Chang calls the late Mr. Ed Ludwig, who taught calculus, Fenwick’s “Director of Happiness.” (1964 photo)

“They all were very kind but very demanding,” he remembers, adding that Ludwig and McGrath were not perceived as being kind, initially. “They seemed harsh at first. They pushed us,” explains Chang, who jokingly refers to Ludwig as the Fenwick’s “Director of Happiness.” Looking back, however, the former student appreciates these teachers’ collective toughness.

Other Fenwick teachers were as influential, if not more so, to Chang’s developing, teenage brain. “Math always was easy [for me] to do,” he admits. “It is a rich but one-dimensional subject. Large, open-ended subjects, such as history and literature, are different.” As a sophomore in 1982-83, he discovered cognitive enrichment in honors English with Fr. Dave Santoro, O.P., honors history class with Mr. John Quinn ’76 and speech class with Mr. Andrew Arellano. In those courses of study, “I learned how to think and debate. I developed political opinions. The strategic thinking and soft-skills I began to glimpse then are arguably as important to my job today as the technical, ‘hard-skills.’”

“The strategic thinking and soft-skills I began to glimpse then [at Fenwick] are arguably as important to my job today as the technical, ‘hard skills.’”

Dr. Dan Chang

Back to school

Dr. Chang talks with students in Fenwick’s John Gearen ’32 Library.

This past November, Chang explained to students the discovery of exoplanets by employing the so-called “stellar-wobble” method, as well as the transit photometry method. Doppler spectroscopy (also known as the radial-velocity method, or colloquially, the wobble method) is an indirect method for finding extrasolar planets and brown dwarfs from radial-velocity measurements via observation of Doppler shifts in the spectrum of the planet’s parent star; while the transit method essentially measures the “wink” of a star as an exoplanet passes before it. (The Nobel Prize in physics for 2019 was awarded partially for the first exoplanet discovery, employing the radial velocity method.)

Chang spent several years of his career on JPL’s Stellar Interferometry Mission (SIM), which was an attempt to discover exoplanets using yet another method – direct astrometry, but with unprecedented precision. SIM proved to be too much of a technological stretch and was cancelled in 2009. “The technology is very difficult,” Chang stressed, “measuring angle changes down to approximately 4 micro-arcseconds,” which is about a billionth of a degree. (An arcsecond is an angular measurement equal to 1/3600 of a degree.)

During his nearly 29-year career at JPL, Chang’s technical contributions and leadership have been recognized with numerous individual awards, including the NASA Honors Award in 2007. For the past three and a half years, he has been the project manager of JPL’s Program Office 760, which is known as the “Technology Demonstrations Office.” While details cannot be disclosed, he is responsible for the management and technical direction of the more than 100 people who work within the classified program. Chang, who reports to  JPL’s Director for Astronomy and Physics, was Office 760’s chief engineer for two years prior to overseeing the program.

“This part of astrophysics is close to my heart, but let’s now look at an engineering tour de force,” he proclaimed to the young, fellow Friars, switching gears and delving into the basics of how the Mars landing system works.

No crash landings with Sky Crane: NASA has spent more than
$200 million to develop a propulsive, soft-landing system using a massive parachute for potential use on Mars. The helium balloon has a 110-foot diameter – a canopy big enough to fill the Rose Bowl football stadium in Pasadena, California!

“The United States still is the only country that has successfully landed vehicles on Mars (the massive Curiosity rover in 2012 being the most recent),” he informed the students. “We have been [remotely] driving around up there for seven years.” From 2004-07, Chang served as a principal investigator under the Mars Technology Program (MTP), for which he helped to develop LIDAR for lander terminal guidance.

Mars 2020: Set for launch this coming July, the new, yet-to-be-named rover is powered by plutonium and may carry a helicopter, a NASA spokesperson says.

With all the Martian craters and high-wind dust storms (up to 70 mph), “how do you safely land a probe?” he asked.  JPL succeeded in 1997 with its toy-car sized Pathfinder robotic spacecraft, which employed the new (at the time) technology of airbag-mediated touchdown. JPL returned again in 2004 with MER, again using airbags and a crude, wind-compensating rocket system called DIMES. However, for the Mars Science Lab mission in 2012 that landed Curiosity – “essentially a nuclear-powered, 2,000-pound MINI Cooper – we had to resort to lowering the probe on a tether to solve the egress problem and other challenges.” This technology is NASA’s rocket-powered Sky Crane, developed for the Curiosity landing and will be used again when the Mars 2020 mission attempts its next landing. “It was surprising to us that it worked!” Chang remarked.

Animation of Mars Helicopter: The small, autonomous rotorcraft is designed to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. “The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling,” says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

In less than 12 months, another robotic rover could be roaming and exploring the “Red Planet” in a quest to answer that age-old question: Are we alone in the universe? Scheduled for a July 17 launch, Mars 2020 should touch down in Jezero crater (on Mars) on February 18, 2021. NASA has invested some $2.5 billion in the eagerly anticipated mission. The new, yet-to-be-named rover is expected to carry a small, autonomous rotorcraft known as the Mars Helicopter, Chang shared excitedly.

1-MINUTE VIDEO: How Do You Land on Mars? Very Carefully!

The Fenwick Standard

Chang (far left in 1989) rowed crew all four years as an ungrad at MIT: “Most of my varsity years were spent in the bow seat,” which is the front. “Rowers sit facing backwards,” he notes.

In college, when Chang wasn’t studying or reading in the Cambridge, MA campus library, he blew off steam by rowing crew on the Charles River. These days, when he is not working at JPL or consulting for firms such as Skybox Imaging (acquired by Google and recently sold again to Planet Labs), his hobby is aviation. “I like fixing (mostly) and flying – when I’m not fixing – my plane,” says Chang, who owns a single-engine aircraft.

He also enjoys spending time with his wife, Malina, and their teenage daughter, Natalie. While Chang contends that values, work ethic and good study habits begin at home with the family, he wishes he could find a private secondary school in the Los Angeles area more like Fenwick, which he considers the standard. “I’d gladly pay for rigor and discipline, which are critical,” he says. “Unfortunately, most private schools where I live primarily offer social segmentation.”

“Merit and accomplishment are what matter at Fenwick.”

Dan Chang, PhD. (Class of 1985)

Whether at Fenwick or MIT, “the textbooks teachers use are the same as at other schools,” adds Dr. Chang, who has been interviewing under-graduate candidates in the LA area for his collegiate alma mater since 2006. “The quality of the student body is what determines how far teachers can go, how much they can push [their students].” The Dominican friars foster an egalitarian atmosphere, he concludes: “The relative wealth of the student body doesn’t matter at Fenwick. One’s own merit and accomplishments are what matter.”

Could one of these new NASA astronauts one day travel to Mars or another planet? NASA thinks it will happen before the year 2045.
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Students-Turned-Teachers Help to Advance the Friars’ Mission

Why is it that such a surprisingly high number of former students return to Fenwick to teach future alumni?

By Mark Vruno

Presently, there are approximately 140 teachers, administrators and staff members at Fenwick High School, and 38 of them have walked the hallowed halls in Oak Park as students. Over the course of the school’s nine decades in existence, many more former pupils have returned to work and serve. “People come back to Fenwick because of the impact the school had on their lives,” believes Social Studies/History Department Chair Alex Holmberg ’05. “Whether that impact was inside or outside the classrooms, Fenwick leaves a powerful impression on everyone,” says Mr./Coach Holmberg, who triples as the school’s clubs/activities director and the defensive coordinator of the varsity football team.

Alex Holmberg ’05

“The opportunity to shape how future students approach the rest of their lives is incredibly powerful,” he notes, “and that potential draws so many people back into the building. Thinking about that opportunity to help prepare and motivate future Friars is what brought me back to Fenwick, and that thought is what motivates me to continue to help the school in whatever way I can.”

Principal Peter Groom, who has taught Friars since the 1980s, reports that many of the Fenwick graduates he has hired, he had in the classroom. “We get to know our students during their time here,” Mr. Groom explains. “We get to know their intelligence, their values, their passion and their work ethic. Typically, our graduates are also committed to our mission. When we hire people who are committed to our mission, we hire people who want to remain a part of our community for a long time. One of the keys to building a mission-based school is to have teachers who are committed and who demonstrate the aforementioned values.”

Roger Finnell ’59, a Fenwick mathematics instructor for more than five decades, concurs with fellow alumnus Holmberg:  “Many alumni teach here because they remember their experience at Fenwick as being something special and want to contribute towards continuing the traditions here,” reflects Mr. Finnell, who is Math Department Chair.

Roger Finnell in 1968.

“I knew I wanted to teach math when I started college,” shares Finnell, who also is the man behind the scenes of Black Friars Guild stage productions. “In my senior year at Loyola, after I finished student teaching at Lane Tech in Chicago, I heard about an opening at St. Ignatius, so I made an appointment for an interview. But then I thought I might as well also inquire at Fenwick. I did my Fenwick interview and was offered a position here, so, seeing this as a great opportunity, I quickly cancelled my St. Ignatius interview and the rest is history!”

Representing the Classes of 1959 to 2012

Kevin Roche ’05

Holmberg and math/computer science teacher Kevin Roche ’05 are two of thousands of Friars taught by Mr. Finnell over the past 55 years. “I think that there are a large amount of Friars returning because they had a great experience at the school, believe in what the school does, and want to be a part of ‘steering the ship’ for future generations,” chimes in Mr. Roche, who also coaches cross country. “We have Friars in different aspects of the school (operations, administration, faculty and development) who all had different experiences here yet all want to give back. I believe that this influx of alumni teachers is also a sign of our generation: millennials have a great desire to find meaning and purpose in their work. That is their highest motivator and education is a career that offers immense purpose and validation for the work through strong relationships.”

Grace Liliek ’08

Grace Lilek ’08, who is in her third year of teaching social studies at Fenwick, captures the sentiment of many of her colleagues who also are alumni: “I was inspired to pursue a career in education based on my experiences at Fenwick,” says Ms. Lilek, who also is a learning resource coordinator. “I think experience is the first reason so many of us have come back to Fenwick to teach. You will not meet two Fenwick graduates who had the exact same experience. You can be an athlete or a thespian or participate in academic competitions, and always find your niche. You can also take on all three of those roles and thrive. It is an honor to come back to Fenwick as a teacher and share these experiences with our students.” Lilek continues:

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High-Tech Education Came to Fenwick a Quarter-Century Ago

Where in the World Wide Web has “FenTech” gone and, more importantly, where is it headed? Answers can be found in the growth of the school’s Bernard F. Brennan Computer Science Laboratory and CS programs.

By Mark Vruno

In 1993, could we have fathomed high-school educators teaching entire courses to teenagers on tablet computers? iPads weren’t even a tech “thing” 25 years ago, yet this past school year at Fenwick, the “Introduction to Computer Science” (CS) class was taught entirely on Apple iPads, reports Science Department Co-Chair Dave Kleinhans.

Turning Fenwick’s tech visions into realities over the past two-and-a-half decades has been made possible, in large part, by initial, generous funding from alumnus Bernard Brennan ’56, former chief executive (from 1985-96) of the Montgomery Ward department-store chain. Bernie is the younger brother of the late Edward Brennan ’51, former CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Ed and Bernie, the Brennan Bros., are a couple of Friars’ heavy-hitters:  Bernie is a member of the school’s Board of Directors as well as a 1986 Fenwick Hall of Fame inductee; Ed followed him to the school HOF in ’91.

A peek inside Fenwick’s Bernard F. Brennan Computer Science Laboratory, which officially was dedicated on February 28, 1993.

Twenty-five years ago, the younger Brennan and his family made a major leadership donation to create the Bernard F. Brennan Computer Science Laboratory, which was dedicated in early 1993. Students at the time, as well as members of the Fenwick Mothers’ Club, also contributed financially to the lab’s creation. Now 80 years old, Bernie Brennan’s blue-sky vision of “computerization projects” today partly resides in the virtual “Cloud,” of course. But keep in mind that, in early 1993, while email may have been a mainstream form of communication at most corporations, the Internet was a fledgling technology. Ever so slowly, companies were beginning to launch new, online branding devices called “websites.” The dot-com bubble (1997-2001) was still a few years off.

For Fenwick’s new Brennan Computer Lab, initial purchases in the mid-1990s included hardware, such as AST Bravo workstations and Netstore SCSI CD-ROM subsystems (used for information retrieval long before web browsers and cloud computing became popular), as well as software, electrical upgrades and accessories, including printers and furniture. The lab was designed to be used by the Math and Science Departments as well as the Library and the English Department. Tech-hungry teachers welcomed the new writing-lab segment, which featured desktop publishing systems for the Blackfriars Yearbook, The Wick student newspaper and staff newsletters.

Bernie Brennan’s 1956 yearbook portrait.

“It was clear to me that we were moving into the technology world at that point in time, and I wanted Fenwick to be in the leadership position,” Mr. Brennan reflected recently. “Ironically, I have been heavily involved in the technology sector for the past 20 years! It is easy to give back to Fenwick and our Dominican friends as they have done so much for the Brennan family. Fenwick’s focus on intellectual curiosity, discipline and uncompromising ethics is a beacon for us all.”

“Fenwick’s focus on intellectual curiosity, discipline and uncompromising ethics is a beacon for us all.” -Bernie Brennan ’56

New Millennium’s Web of Tech

Freshman math students in Mr. Andrew Thompson’s class, using their iPads (2017 photo).

It is interesting to note that each of Fenwick’s 1,152 incoming students this fall will have an iPad in her or his backpack. (Members of the outgoing Class of 2018 are the first Friars to have had tablet computers in their collective possession all four years.) With improved anti-cheating security measures in place, some high schools in Illinois already have adopted online final exams. Fenwick teachers have administered online quizzes and tests via their students’ iPads, but most educators in the building are proceeding with caution on that electronic front.

Since 2000, Fenwick has had a Technology Services Department in place that today is staffed by four full-time employees. These high-tech staff members manage the school’s more than 400 computer systems and a highly secure Wi-Fi network as well as some 30 switches and 122 access points — not to mention the telephone and email systems and 92 copy machines/printers! Associate Tech Director Fr. Mike Winkels, O.P. also feeds content to a total of six electronic bulletin boards displayed in the cafeteria, outside the library and elsewhere throughout the school.

Fenwick Technology Director Ernesto Nieto

Fenwick’s students, faculty and staff alike often take this tech group’s behind-the-scenes work for granted. Even those of us old enough to remember slow modems and non-connectivity have come to expect our 21st-century, networked, electronic devices to work – “magically” — with no glitches. “We do a lot of things that people probably don’t think about,” says Director of Technology Services Ernesto Nieto, who came to Fenwick in ’01 by way of St. Ignatius College Prep, the Dominican Conference Center, the Shrine of St. Jude and DePaul University.

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