Using Mathematics to Save Lives

1991 graduate leads NASA’s search and rescue mission and is a finalist for the Service to America Medal

By Rita Buettner  |  Photos courtesy of Lisa Mazzuca

As NASA’s search and rescue mission manager, Lisa Mazzuca, ’91, oversees a program many people aren’t even aware exists. In fact, she didn’t even realize herself that NASA was involved in search and rescue until she applied for the job.

Through the work of Mazzuca and her colleagues, NASA enables the satellite technology that is needed to provide more accurate locations of people who are missing after airplane or ship disasters. The satellites are developed to pick up signals from special emergency beacons equipped onboard aircraft, and vessels, as well as personal use. The satellite signal is relayed to the ground and the computed position is sent to the Coast Guard and the Air Force to conduct the rescues.

This same technology is relied on by civilians who take trips to remote areas, where cellular coverage doesn’t exist. These beacons are available for purchase at outdoor-supply stores, such as REI, but many people don’t consider how they could benefit from having a beacon.

“The hard-core bikers, hikers, skiers know about this technology, but your weekend warrior probably doesn’t,” Mazzuca said. “It’s not as prevalent as one would hope. It really could save your life if you were hiking somewhere beyond your cellphone service.”

The international program, which has existed since 1982, involves 42 countries. Part of Mazzuca’s job is to provide technological improvements to the system that maximize human lives saved around the world.

Multiple Careers within NASA

Mazzuca’s current role is just the latest chapter in 25 years of diverse experience working at the Goddard Space Flight Center. During her time at NASA, Mazzuca earned her master’s in Physics at The Johns Hopkins University and her Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Maryland, College Park.

“Inside NASA I was starting to get hooked into the Hubble Space Telescope office, and I knew that was where I wanted to be at the time,” she remembered.

“I had seen spectacular images, gorgeous images of space, My eyes were drawn to the artistic beauty of the other galaxy structures in the universe. I asked the Hubble leadership how I could get involved in that, and they said I needed a Ph.D. in Astronomy.”

So she took a two-year sabbatical, thanks to NASA, and completed the coursework before finishing her dissertation and earning her degree in 2006.

Mazzuca served on the Hubble Space Telescope’s last three servicing missions before she learned of the search and rescue position.

“I came off of Hubble, which is a very typical type of mission for NASA, to my current role, which is so unique—even for NASA,” she said. “The technology NASA developed almost 40 years ago has saved thousands of people; we’re up to 41,000 worldwide. But now it’s time to improve upon that antiquated technology, and that’s what my team at NASA is leading on an international scale.”

The greatest challenge in her job is not the technical work. “It’s really about the complex partnerships with other agencies, other countries, other delegations, trying to get everyone to work together.” And for that, she said, “you need to have good interpersonal skills. You need to be very articulate when you’re speaking to other countries. You need to be sensitive to their cultures.”

It’s in those interactions that Mazzuca is grateful for the liberal arts foundation she received along with her degree in mathematics from Loyola.

“I went to Loyola for the liberal arts to diversify myself,” she said. And she feels it did.

“All of our work is technically challenging, but you have to be able to get along with the rest of your team and get yourself heard as well. That’s something that is difficult to teach in college. I think the liberal arts background forced more oral presentations than I would have done otherwise. As much as I hated public speaking as a student, it prepared me for my career. Today I do presentations all the time.”

Making the Most of Loyola

A graduate of Catholic High in Baltimore, Mazzuca commuted to Loyola’s Evergreen Campus from Rosedale, Md., and worked part-time as a file clerk at Greater Baltimore Medical Center during college.

“I didn’t feel the need to move away from home,” she said. “Loyola was big enough, but not too big. I also liked the ability to get to know my professors.”

At Loyola, Mazzuca didn’t even consider that her math education could be applied to outer space until she took a class with a visiting professor, Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., who is now the director of the Vatican Observatory.

“It’s amazing how one class can focus you and be the pivotal moment in your future career, and it was that one,” she said. “Then Goddard Space Flight Center came on for an on campus interview, and they needed a mathematician. I got the job at NASA right there from the campus interview.”

If Mazzuca were to give advice to students studying math or science today, she would tell them to take advantage of all the knowledge they can gain at Loyola from the professors and The Career Center to the internship programs and partnerships the University works so hard to obtain for their students.

“There were many math classes where I went and said, ‘I have no idea how I’ll ever apply that,’ but I’ve applied almost everything I learned throughout my NASA career. I ended up in the spot that maximized my degree, and I’m ever grateful to Loyola for that.”

She also recognizes the value in making connections with faculty and community members—connections that go beyond the four years at Loyola. Anne Young, Ph.D., professor of mathematics emerita, became an important mentor who guided Mazzuca through Loyola and is still a friend today.

“Find mentors early, and make sure you can broaden your skills and perspective to understand how you can apply your degree.”

Lisa Mazzuca, ’91, was named among the top four finalists for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal in the Promising Innovations category, a category the Partnership for Public Service introduced in 2017 to recognize federal employees who are developing cutting-edge technologies or driving innovative approaches that have demonstrated measurable success and great potential but are still in progress. The Service to America Medals are considered to be the “Oscars” of government service. 

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