Meet Hometown Boy: A Rocket Scientist, Movie Actor and Mentor
Joshua Colwell is a UCF physics professor trying to unravel the mystery of how Earth and the solar system were formed. His expertise has landed him roles in several NASA-funded projects, including the Cassini mission, which is exploring Saturn’s rings.
Becoming a rocket scientist was a natural career choice for the DeLand native. He watched the dawn of the manned space race unfold on the Space Coast while regularly tuning in to watch Spock and Captain Kirk take on conventional norms on the television show Star Trek.
Colwell found a way to combine all his loves. He conducts research that has taken him around the world and on several trips aboard NASA’s “vomit comet” – the nickname of the zero-gravity plane used to train astronauts and conduct research. Recently he took on additional duties at UCF as associate chair of the physics department and assistant director of the Florida Space Institute. The institute is dedicated to supporting space research, development and education.
He also dabbles in the movies. He served as a technical advisor for Hollywood’s Deep Impact movie and even landed a small speaking role. He’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild and an avid movie watcher.
What inspired you to pursue your area of research?
I don’t think it is possible to identify a single inspiration. My mother dates my attraction to space exploration to when she was pregnant with me and attended the launch of Gemini 1. I was thrilled by the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was 4 years old, according to my parents – I don’t remember that first viewing – and I’m sure I was watching the first run of Star Trek at that time, as well. By the time Carl Sagan’s Cosmos aired on TV I was already sure that I would be doing some form of astrophysical research as a career. I’m very fortunate that I was able to meet Sagan at a conference and thank him for the impact his work had on me.
What do you most love about your job?
I love interacting with students and helping them discover things. The universe is a fascinating place, and remarkably complex phenomena can frequently be understood with fairly simple ideas. As a teacher, I love being able to expose students to both the intricacies and the simple beauty of nature and see what new things they uncover. One of the joys of being a researcher is the thrill of discovery. As a planetary scientist I am fortunate enough to see things that have never been seen before and to work with others to understand new phenomena.
Of all your accomplishments, which one has meant the most to you?
Being selected as UCF Mentor of the Year by the Office of Undergraduate Research. It was particularly meaningful to me because it reflects on the work I find most rewarding – helping the next generation of scientists.
How do you keep motivated to continue with your research especially when funding becomes tight?
The research is intrinsically interesting. We have a wealth of data about the solar system, and a limitless supply of unanswered questions. Curiosity is always the prime motivation, regardless of funding. Then, when a new discovery is made, sharing it with students and the rest of the world is immensely rewarding.
What do you do for fun?
I love movies, and I have been having fun working on some film projects with my daughter, who is a screen actor in Los Angeles. I like writing movie reviews. I enjoy traveling with my wife and seeing new parts of the world. I get a lot of pleasure from my dog and cat, who are daily reminders to enjoy the simple things in life.
Is your current job what you initially thought you would be doing?
Actually, yes! I’m very fortunate.
Share something few people know about you?
I had a very small speaking part in Deep Impact, have been an extra in about a half dozen movies and acted in community theater in Colorado. I was a movie reviewer at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996.
What’s your family like?
I come from a family of educators, but I am the lone scientist. My grandfather was the founding president of the Claremont School of Theology. My father was a professor of English and chair at Stetson University. My mother’s father was an English teacher and co-wrote two books on English grammar and usage with my father. My mother has had a long career as a social worker, fundraiser, and community organizer in DeLand. My wife is retired from teaching French and is an artist in watercolor, mixed media, oil pastels and acrylic. My daughter is an actor in Hollywood who has a national commercial to her credit and is currently doing post-production work on her independently produced feature-length film.
What is your dream job?
I have it!
What is your ideal vacation?
I would love spending time at a bed and breakfast in Hawaii with my wife, snorkeling, hiking, and exploring the islands.
What is one thing you want people to know about you or your work?
I don’t think most people know how much work is involved in the nitty-gritty daily grind of research activities. Those moments of discovery and breakthrough are built on countless hours of planning, programming, pursuing promising paths that ultimately lead nowhere, mistakes, false starts, and simple dead ends. Research, like teaching, is also a very social enterprise that involves working closely with small and large teams of people, so a large amount of time is spent communicating with others, coordinating efforts, and negotiating for limited resources to pursue a broad array of science goals.
Who is your hero?
My daughter, because she is pursuing her dreams with no fear or hesitation – and, of course, Spock.