One of Heriniaina Rajaoberison’s high school’s precepts was to do hard things and take risks. He has practiced this philosophy throughout his time at UR, which has led him to many exciting opportunities, one of which was working on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Rajaoberison, a senior majoring in Optical Engineering, is the Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Advanced Growing Resources, a UR student start-up developing optical sensing technology.

When Rajaoberison arrived at UR in his first year, he was interested in studying engineering — he just didn’t know which kind. The day before course registration, Rajaoberison attended the departmental fair for students. “There were some cool displays from the Optics department, one was something that was playing tricks with your vision and stuff, and it was mind-blowing to me,” Rajaoberison described. A professor told Rajaoberison to attend the first lecture of an optics class, and after attending, he wanted to learn more. Rajaoberison took a few more courses in optics, and then never left. 

Rajaoberison became involved in research during his first year after a meeting with his optics advisor, Professor Jennifer Kruschwitz. Rajaoberison wasn’t sure what he was interested in, so Kruschwitz suggested a few labs for him to reach out to. After a couple of meetings, he landed in Professor Jannick Rolland’s lab, where he worked on mixed reality optical design using Microsoft HoloLens. 

The summer after Rajaoberison’s first year, he interned at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, where he gained a position through Kruschwitz. “[Professor Kruschwitz’s] husband, Professor Brian Kruschwitz, who works at LLE, was looking for someone for a summer project,” Rajaoberison explained. Apparently, the project was supposed to be for someone in their junior or senior year, but I was lucky through my connection[s] to get to be able to talk to him. I was really excited about the project, and that was my first-time doing research in machine learning.”  

Rajaoberison found his passion for machine learning that summer, and with his LLE experience, was able to use his machine learning skills with Professor Jim Fienup, who was working on the James Webb Space Telescope. Rajaoberison is an undergraduate research assistant in Fienup’s research group, where he works with Fienup and Ph.D. candidate Joseph Tang on wavefront sensing, using machine learning, for the fine alignment of the James Webb Space Telescope primary mirrors.

“I’ve learned a lot as part of the experience from Professor Fienup, who I would probably say is the Godfather of Phase Retrieval,” Rajaoberison chuckled. “He has helped me when I’m stuck and keeps me going when I don’t know how to do something. Joseph Tang also gives me a lot of advice in research and machine learning.” 

Rajaoberison writes machine learning algorithms to help James Webb’s 18 primary mirrors position themselves and counter piston phase error. Rajaoberison used data synthetically gathered from a computer simulation that tried to determine how light would be seen through the telescope. This data would help determine how to position the telescope’s mirrors and overcome piston phase error, which impacts the images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. 

“It’s like saying, NASA’s depending on what I’m doing here so that they’ll get the image very sharp,” Rajaoberison said. “Because what I do is really helping the James Webb Space Telescope get a sharper image, and getting a sharp image means that we will be able to understand the universe and its origin better.”

Last January,  Rajaoberison, Fienup, and Tang presented their work to NASA.  Rajaoberison was the one to give the presentation, an experience he found amazing as an undergraduate. “It’s been unbelievable, I guess. I never thought I would have the chance to collaborate with NASA, and especially as a non-US citizen,” Rajaoberison expressed.

Rajaoberison encourages students interested in research to talk to their academic advisors. “If you don’t know where to start […] speak with the academic advisor,” Rajaoberison said. “I was lucky to have a wonderful advisor with Professor Jennifer Kruschwitz. She’s awesome and [advisors] are willing to talk with you about what your interest is.” 


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