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Galactic opportunity

Alumnus lands NASA job, thanks to harsh environment credentials


By Ryan Howell

Dr. Liam Morrissey is living a dream many aspiring scientists have — and he knows it.

“It sometimes feels a little too good to be true,” said the born-and-raised Newfoundlander and Labradorian and three-time alumnus of Memorial (B.Eng.’14, M.Sc.’16 and PhD’21).

During Dr. Morrissey’s PhD program, his supervisor, Dr. Sam Nakhla in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, recommended they attend the Symposium on Space Innovation conference hosted by Georgia Institute of Technology.

The pair were keen to present their research and findings to an industry they didn’t typically work with. Dr. Morrissey’s research looks at the performance and properties of materials in harsh environments.

“Until the conference, most of my work was focused on oil and gas applications in the harsh offshore environment, but space represents another, different harsh environment.”

The conference afforded Dr. Morrissey a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to present his research to NASA employees. He says that because he is very interested in NASA and space research, it was intimidating but also exciting.

“Ultimately, NASA is looking to increase the world’s knowledge on scientific and engineering challenges. If they are interested in your work, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.”

Iconic company

As it turned out, the researchers made an impression during their presentation.

Dr. Liam Morrissey is presenting his findings of a simulation, which are displayed on a white poster board. He is standing beside the board wearing a white dress shirt and black pants.
Dr. Morrissey is pictured at a conference prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo: Submitted

Thanks to the positive reception, Dr. Morrissey took a leap of faith and reached out to NASA to express his interest in a collaboration.

After another round of presenting and pitching, he was offered a job as a research contractor through an agreement with the Center for Research and Exploration in Space, Science and Technology in Washington, Maryland.

“COVID-19 has made remote work more viable than ever, and because my work is simulation-based I can work anywhere. After I completed my PhD, I was offered the position and, fortunately, it has recently been extended for another year.”

Dr. Morrissey is currently involved in a number of projects related to the effects of environmental weather on surface materials with NASA.

“[My supervisors] have really helped me grow as a researcher … and encouraged me to dream big.” — Dr. Liam Morrissey

One of his research groups studies the feasibility of lunar witness plates to better inform decisions made on the moon. When he is not hard at work finding the answers to some of space’s biggest conundrums, he is an in-demand guest speaker.

He has presented at a number of international conferences since becoming employed by NASA. This week, he is providing a feature presentation as an early career scientist at the Lunar Exploration and Analysis Group conference.

Returning the favour

Dr. Morrissey says Memorial University was instrumental in positioning him for his “out-of-this-world” experience.

“I have been extremely lucky to have had such supportive supervisors in my master’s and PhD programs,” he said. “They have really helped me grow as a researcher, provided me with the freedom to tackle new challenges and encouraged me to dream big.”

In fact, he wants to be one of them someday.

“In academia it is so hard to know what’s next, but my goal since day one has been to become a professor. Memorial has shaped me into who I am today, and I would love to return one day and give back to the place that has helped me so much.”

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