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North Lake Student Wins NASA Journey to Mars Challenge

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Maleen Kidwela, a North Lake College geophysics major, and his colleague Aaron Aliaga submitted their entry "Mars Settlement Concepts" to NASA'S Journey to Mars Challenge. It was one of three winners from a field of 771 applicants. | Photo by Alejandra Zavaleta.

Author: Jayme Smith, Student Staff Writer, The News-Register
Published Oct. 27, 2015

While most college students spend their summers with friends and family by the pool, at the movies or traveling, 19-year-old sophomore Maleen Kidwela was researching for NASA.

"It was summer and we needed something to do," said Kidwela, a geophysics major and tutor at the Math Learning Center at North Lake College.

Kidwela and his Californian colleague and chemical engineering major, Aaron Aliaga, submitted a concept into NASA's "Journey to Mars Challenge: Achieving Earth Independence" in July. They spent two months collaborating on ideas, mathematic models and satellite data, which they incorporated into a 30-page report describing how to maintain a permanent human presence on Mars."

Basically, it's about protecting the astronauts from galactic cosmic radiation, and also giving them renewable oxygen, food, water and an energy source," said Kidwela. "It's a broad concept, not just one idea. The crew wouldn't need resupply; the idea is to achieve Earth independence."

Beating The Odds

By September, NASA was contacting Kidwela and Aliaga that their entry, "Mars Settlement Concepts" was one of three chosen out of 771 submissions worldwide to win $5,000. Most of the contest entries were submitted by doctorate and masters graduates. Neither of which are Kidwela or Aliaga—at least, not yet.

"We thought it was a long shot," said Aliaga.

Kidwela said he received a message from the director of NASA who expressed his surprise witnessing two college-level students win.

"They contacted me through email," Kidwela said. "When I saw NASA.gov I knew we had won so I didn't even open it, but forwarded it to Aaron instead. We were thrilled!"

Teaming Up

Kidwela and Aliaga met three years ago when Kidwela moved from his home country of Sri Lanka to Sun City, CA, where the two attended Paloma Valley High School together their senior year. They instantly hit it off.

"When we first met I told him, 'I'm studying to do research,'" Kidwela said. "Then Aaron said, 'Oh, I do research all the time with my dad,' and eventually we became best friends."

They began entering contests together. They were finalists in the California State Science Fair. Their "Project Tremor" won first place in the Riverside Inland Science and Engineering Fair after researching the use of minute precursors to pinpoint locations of earthquakes.

Despite Kidwela and Aliaga living miles apart, they communicate through Skype and Google Docs while researching and they contribute their success to teamwork, agreeing that one couldn't have won NASA's "Mars Challenge" without the other.

Aaron is more practical and offers a lot of mechanical knowledge—how to build anything electrical—and I offer more theory and the geophysics of Earth," said Kidwela.

Future Focused

Aliaga plans on using his half of the prize money to purchase a new laptop, school supplies and fuel, which he says are all necessary for college life. Kidwela plans to save his winnings. But the two innovators weren't motivated by the prize money, but rather the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

"It is an honor knowing that our ideas may help shape the future of Mars colonization," said Aliaga. "It is sort of surreal. It's a positive feeling knowing that we may have a part in leading the future of human exploration."

So why is it important to invest in developing new technologies to pursue space exploration?

"The population is increasing greatly—doubling in size—and it will eventually exceed its limits here on Earth as resources begin to deplete," said Kidwela. "This is the reason why we're pursuing sustainable life on another planet."

Support at School and Home

Chemistry professor Christopher McAdams was pleased with Kidwela's submission to NASA.

"Maleen used some concepts from chemistry, but the scope of his proposal went far beyond the concepts that we cover in class," McAdams said. "It required a broad understanding of physics, chemistry and biology."

Kidwela's brilliance may derive from genetics as his father is an irrigation engineer or from spending his childhood in his parent's grand library.

"My hobby was reading," said Kidwela. "I enjoyed science fiction and encyclopedias."

In 2012, he was a finalist in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) in Sri Lanka.
And he's actually no stranger to NASA. Last year, he won third place with another colleague, sophomore Prabhasha Wattegedara, after they created an idea for an app in NASA's "Climate Resilience Data Challenge" that uses NASA satellite data to acquire your location and help you avoid stressful situations in urban cities and different areas of the world.

Calculus professor Rhaman Ghamasaee believes Kidwela's curiosity, perseverance, hard work and time management sets him apart from other students.

"He has demonstrated great potential and it is an honor for North Lake to have a student of this caliber," Ghamasaee said. "Try to maintain your competitive edge, Maleen."

This doesn't seem to be an issue for Kidwela who is in the process of working on a new project.
"I'm always researching," he said.

Next Steps

Kidwela plans on transferring to a university next fall where he plans to earn his bachelor's degree and eventually pursue his masters and Ph.D.

"I plan to become a seismologist and work for NASA or U.S. Geological Survey," said Kidwela. "Or Aaron and I may contribute to a research organization."

And maybe in the distant future, Kidwela will be spending his summers sending mankind to Mars.

To read more news pieces from student writers at North Lake College, visit The News-Register online.