Lab Coat Confidential: From Model Rockets to Circuit Boards

Thomas Castner has been an engineer at Science Center resident company Halo Labs (formerly Optofluidics) since 2015. This spring has been an especially exciting time at the company with the launch of their newest particle analysis machine: Horizon. Over the past six months, Thomas and his colleagues have also donated over 20 hours of their time to mentoring FirstHand students. From tours of their lab for Polymer Play classes to coaching Project Inquiry through programming Neopixel ring prototypes for Horizon, the Halo team has become a key part of the FirstHand mentorship program. In this edition of Lab Coat Confidential, Thomas talks about working in STEM and why he is committed to giving back even when work is at its busiest!

Thomas demonstrating how the electronics of Halo’s instruments work to Project Inquiry students.

What is your job at Halo Labs?
My official title is Hardware Engineer. So that includes building all the instruments – designing them and making the 3D model of how all the parts work together – as well as the electronics. It’s a variety, but that’s why I enjoy working at a place like Halo. We’re a small company, so you do a bit of everything!

Why do you think science and STEAM are important?
I think it’s both about how you think and work through problems, and also getting to see and understand some of the mind-blowing things that other people do. There’s a certain thought process that scientists and engineers and mathematicians practice, and it allows you to approach things in a much more logical way… Then the other side is that there are a lot of very creative people in STEM. They have a lot of good ideas and interesting ways to approach things. Getting to see and understand all that is really amazing.

Do you remember a moment from school that sparked your interest in STEM?
I was in first grade and the fourth graders in my school shot off model Estes rockets, and I really, really wanted to shoot a rocket off. So I bugged my parents – for what seemed like forever but was probably a few months – and finally they said okay, we’ll buy a model rocket kit. In first grade it’s very simple; you just glue the little kits together. But then you begin building your own and then there are equations to follow and test… And now I build all the electronics that are inside of them!

Why did you decide to get involved in FirstHand?
I think giving back in all ways is really important. So right now I have a lot of time and energy to give, so I do things like judge every Senior Design Day at Penn to make sure my degree program is doing well. FirstHand is about giving back to the Philadelphia area. The Science Center has a lot of good things going on here, and we want to keep a lot of good things going on here. So how do you do that? You give that little extra 5% and just do it.

Do you have a favorite moment from working with FirstHand?
I’ve really enjoyed getting to teach. When you explain a concept and the students look a little bit puzzled at first, but then you see the switch flip and they get it… It’s building that logical STEM thought process. That little moment is when a pathway gets built and needs to just keep getting reinforced.

What advice would you give to potential mentors?
You have to make a small sacrifice, but that sacrifice is very small and it’s so rewarding in the end. It was a lot of fun, I really enjoy doing it… And no one ever really taught me stuff like that, so why shouldn’t I help pass it on? It’s important.

What advice would you give to an aspiring engineer?
Build and test as much as your parents will let you! [laughs] There’s no dumb experiment. You’ll learn a lot more from trying to do things than you will from just wondering, so if you think that you want to do something like build a model rocket or program an Arduino, go for it!

Fill in the blank. As a curious kid, I…
I used to do a lot of experiments just to see what would happen. Whether it was “What if I switched the salt and sugar, I wonder if people will notice,” or “How much force will it take for this stick to break”, or “What will happen if I throw this Lego out of the window with a parachute?”

If I could go on a field trip anywhere in time or space, I would go…
… to see an Saturn 5 rocket launch.

The Halo team with Project Inquiry after the students’ final presentations.