After graduating from USC Dornsife in 1977, Tom Nolan became . . . Tommy Trojan.
Not in a metaphorical sense.
“I rode as Tommy Trojan from 1977 to 1980, when I moved to Alaska, and again from 1988 to 1996 after I moved back to California,” Nolan said of dressing as USC’s beloved unofficial mascot at football games inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. “I rode in four Rose parades and Rose bowls, the Cotton Bowl and the Freedom Bowl. I rode Travelers II, III, and IV, and I helped as part of the Traveler Crew from 2006 to 2012.”
Nolan is a fifth-generation Californian and had acquired plenty of experience for the role while growing up in Los Angeles. At 13, he began riding with a youth cavalry group called the California Rangers, and he exercised horses in Griffith Park every day after school. In 1972, he was named “Mr. California Ranger” during his last year of high school, and five years later was riding inside the Coliseum.
Earning his bachelor’s degree in biology with a marine emphasis, Nolan in real life is a NASA Earth explorer. He has strong memories of the support he received from Bernard C. Abbott, then-professor of biological sciences and director of the Allen Hancock Foundation in what is now USC Dornsife.
“He saw my desire to succeed,” Nolan said, “and he helped feed the desire.”
Nolan said classes and tests were hard work, but Abbott was a steady supporter, even when Nolan once failed an entire course.
“You learned something, just not enough,” Nolan remembers Abbott, who died in 2006, telling him. “Take the class again.”
His persistence paid off. He ended up studying on Catalina Island 40 years ago during his first year as an undergraduate and attended an early version of what has become the Catalina Semester. In the mid-’90s, he was a staff member of the then-newly formed USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, housed in what is now USC Dornsife, and worked with former director Tony Michaels, now adjunct professor of biology in USC Dornsife.
During Nolan’s freshman year, and again in the summer of 1973 for a graduate-level course in plankton ecology, he studied at the USC facility on Catalina Island. His commitment also got him onto the USC vessel “Velero IV” for research trips during the summer.
“Every year, during my time as an undergrad, I was able to go out on a ship and ply the waters between California and Mexico. The USC oceanographers were doing the research. I was just one of the grunts onboard — and glad to be a grunt onboard,” he said with a smile.
Nolan left USC in 1998 to take an education and outreach position with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. It was a career-defining move.
“USC launches careers,” Nolan said. “I’m only one example.”
When Nolan first started at JPL in 1998, he worked as an educator but later became an operations engineer. He was JPL’s lead outreach coordinator for six missions flown by NASA’s Earth Science Division, an operations engineer for JPL’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory and Multi-Angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer, and the image processor for the Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity.
“When I went to work in the morning, I was the first person on Earth to see the new pictures from Mars,” Nolan said.
Nolan’s career has taken him around the world and out to sea. He’s talked about “oceanography from space” at numerous education and science conferences, including two international science education expeditions, one at the Melaka Planetarium in Malaysia and another in Casablanca, Morocco. He served as a marine mammal observer on Japanese salmon fishing vessels off the Aleutian Islands as part of a project by NOAA to monitor and protect Dall's porpoises. He also sailed as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Teacher at Sea Program aboard the NOAA research ship Ka'imimoana during a cruise to maintain an array of buoys in the central Pacific Ocean.
During his career at JPL, Nolan has continued to collaborate with the USC Wrigley Institute as a speaker and participant in the Family Science Program, the QuikSCience Challenge, the National Ocean Sciences Bowl and the Road Scholar outings on Catalina Island.
Nolan’s position at JPL has recently added more outreach work, and today he's working as Earth Science Outreach Coordinator and Instrument Operations Engineer for a project called “Diviner.” The Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment is an instrument flying aboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to measure surface temperatures on the moon and conduct ‘multiaspect imaging’ of its surface.
“It's mapping the moon for our next landing,” Nolan said.
Nolan says USC Dornsife prepared him well for his career, from his beginnings as a dolphin trainer (his dream job when he was an undergraduate) to his current work as a “satellite jockey.”
So far, Nolan said, “Life has been a wild ride.”