According to Robert Salazar, “If you study nature from an artistic and scientific perspective while gaining proficiency in your medium, you can allow your artistic pursuits to give rise to engineering applications, and your engineering pursuits to give rise to works of art.”

Salazar is an expert of striking the perfect balance between art and science. A master of origami and an environmental studies student, he’s able to apply both his art and science skills to build solar reflectors for a project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Salazar’s had to work incredibly hard: after attending five different high schools and losing his home, he’s managed to follow his dreams by finding ways to allow his artistic endeavors to apply to impressive engineering pursuits. He documents all of his explorations on his website, and we were lucky enough to also chat with him about his story here. Check out the conversation below, which has been edited for clarity.

TERRI BURNS: Tell me about your background, what you're studying in school, and some of your interests.

ROBERT SALAZAR: I earned my associate’s degree before transferring to UCSB as a physics major, where I transitioned to a major in environmental studies with a minor in philosophy.

In school, I take the opportunity to familiarize myself with what is happening to our environment and to each other around the world, and how our understanding of the world coupled with our behavior leads to freedom from environmental degradation and involuntary suffering or otherwise. I take great interest in further developing the framework I use to approach these problems and identifying relevant theorems in a network context.

Additionally, I strive to further develop the ancient Japanese art of origami into a powerful expressive medium that can inspire social change toward environmental sustainability and peace. I’ve spent 17 years folding origami, and 8 years designing them rigorously. Everything I fold is an original design from a single uncut sheet. My courses of study are well suited to origami design, where the objective is to establish harmony among many folded features that are intimately and geometrically related to each other, and take up a finite sheet of paper. In origami, these relationships can be transformed, but they can never be cut by scissors, nor can paper be added.

TB: Tell me about the work you're doing now as a JPL intern.

RS: At JPL I'm currently developing large origami deployable solar reflectors for the Trans-Formers for Lunar Extreme Environments project. The project mission is to illuminate permanently shaded regions in the interior of Shackleton Crater at south pole of the Moon. Though the rim of Shackleton Crater receives constant sunlight nearly all year long, its interior has remained in darkness for billions of years, allowing its temperature to cool to ~90K (~ -300°F), a temperature well suited to the capture of icy debris from nearby comet impacts over the eons. The solar reflectors would be mounted in pairs on a support structure on the crater rim, and would track the sun to illuminate and power robotic explorers in regions of interest ~10km below.

On the project, I design the solar reflectors and their deployment mechanisms. I use finite element analyses and simulations to determine what materials would allow a reflector to deploy very flat under tension, within 1mm/m deviation, and operate under constant solar radiation and temperature extremes for years on end, while maintaining >95 percent directional reflectivity. Then I write algorithms to design origami crease patterns that would allow a solar reflector to deploy to the size of the Statue of Liberty from a package ~1 cubic meter in volume and ~100kg.

TB: What's your backstory? How did you get where you are today?

RS: I faced difficulties graduating high school. I had attended five high schools, and lost my house twice during that time. Later, my first summer of research was at UCSB, where I discovered the photoacoustic effect in nanostructured thin metal films. This discovery ultimately led to a photoacoustic phased array, and a much cheaper alternative to the production of ultra-high frequency ultrasound. I spent the next summer at JPL developing thermoelectric materials for cooling X-ray detectors aboard space telescopes.

In the summer of 2015 I returned to JPL as an intern to work on the Starshade project [a free-flying spacecraft that would block the glare of a distant star so a separate space telescope could see its much fainter planets]. My task was to develop a crease pattern that would allow the slightly conical optical shield of the Starshade to stow to a well-defined volume and create a perfect light seal with its mechanical truss throughout deployment. The challenge required me to write an algorithm that could design a crease pattern to fit its given stow requirements, boundary conditions, and material thickness. My success on Starshade led me to the Transformers project the following summer.

TB: How did you get interested in solar reflectors specifically, and why are they important?

RS: The advantages of renewable energy and the mission of the transformers project got me interested in developing solar reflectors. Their ability to generate and redirect energy, catalyze chemical reactions, propel spacecraft, and be deployed from small lightweight packages to large surface areas further solidified my interest. Their traditionally low cost, simplicity, and reliance on an abundant, though diffuse, energy source, makes them an attractive technology.

TB: What do you want to do in your career? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

RS: I plan to continue at JPL to meet the origami challenges of the future and to continue building my company, Orisun into one that can deliver portable origami deployable solar concentrators for desalination, water purification, rain capture, energy generation, atmospheric water generation, and solar cooking to people who have been displaced by war, climate change, and natural disasters. I will also continue to develop origami into a powerful medium that is well-acquainted with a grand diversity of interactive materials for artistic expression and engineering.

TB: What is something that you would love to see happen someday in your field of study?

RS: Just as every unit of surface in a sheet of paper gives rise to all of an origami’s folded features, so too does energy and matter give rise to the systems we take part in.

I would love to see the rise of technology that has been designed with its downstream life cycle in mind. I would love to see an end to the labeling of materials and energy as waste, when each has its own unique potential to be something new or to do “useful” work. In any finite system where energy and matter are conserved, you can almost be certain that energy is flowing and materials are changing. Everything that ends is giving rise to something else. If we can develop a world where we find utility in everything we make throughout its life cycle, we can achieve sustainability, as nature has shown us we can.

TB: What advice do you have for other students who may be interested in doing the kind of work you do?

RS: Well acquaint yourself with the problems of the world. You never know how valuable something you made or discovered will be for many other purposes.

If you study nature from an artistic and scientific perspective while gaining proficiency in your medium, you can allow your artistic pursuits to give rise to engineering applications, and your engineering pursuits to give rise to works of art. Pursuing them together, can take your designs and your medium to very interesting places.