Career Profile: David Fischer, AB'87
Alumnus inspired by his UChicago experience in work with the aerospace industry
“I can see a very direct line from Chicago… I can pinpoint a moment, in fact,” David Fischer, AB’87, said of the impact of his time in the College on his career in aerospace. During Professor Doyal “Al” Harper’s “Universe as Laboratory” course in the spring quarter of Fischer’s second year in the College, Professor Harper invited him to work at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, “and that was it,” said Fischer. That position launched Fischer into a career involving work on telescopes, learning-by-doing, living on the South Pole, and helping to build observatories. Currently a senior manager in Strategic Operations at Ball Aerospace, an organization that he has worked at for sixteen years, Fischer now oversees strategic planning for all five of Ball’s operating units involved in projects with NASA, the Department of Defense, and more.
Remembering the “Universe as Laboratory,” Fischer said “it was one of those classic Chicago classes,” made up of around eight students. “I really loved it,” he said. After Professor Harper invited him to work at Yerkes--an observatory founded in 1897 and home of the largest refracting telescope in the world--Fischer spent the rest of his time in the College dividing his work between Williams Bay, Wisconsin, home of Yerkes, and the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department at the University. It was through these experiences that Fischer said he was able to learn how to design and build instruments for ground-based astronomy, such as his job of maintaining the twelve-inch teaching telescope on the roof of the University's Kersten Physics Teaching Center at 57th and Ellis Avenue. Upon completing his bachelor's degree, Fischer said that he did not feel ready to attend graduate school, and thus went back to Yerkes and worked there for six years as an engineer while commuting back to Chicago for work in the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department. “At some point it clicked that I was doing what I wanted, and that was a lot better than going to grad school,” said Fischer.
While working at Yerkes during this time, the University received a grant for research in Antarctica, and Fischer worked on the design of instruments that would be in use at the observatory upon its completion. At this point, Fischer moved to Denver to work for one of the contractors that had been tapped to help build the south pole lab. From there Fischer was promoted to the Science Manager and then South Pole Station manager in Antarctica, where he and the team there built three observatories between 1993 and 2000.
When Fischer first arrived at Ball he joined a large community of fellow University of Chicago alumni working at the company. He started in the Civil Group of Ball writing proposals for projects with NASA in consultation with university and NASA centers to develop hardware for the science they were seeking to explore. Reflecting on his most significant professional challenges since coming to Ball, Fischer said that, “throughout my career the biggest challenge has been working with a very wide variety of people.” Before arriving at Ball, Fischer had been exposed to working with diverse populations during his time at the South Pole. There, he encountered a large collection of scientists from a variety of fields who came “with their own ways of dealing with the world,” said Fischer. In addition to his research colleagues at the South Pole, Fischer also interacted with people from other trades who were there in support of the construction of observatories, such as doctors, cooks, and construction workers. “People were in conflict with each other a lot because they were from different worlds and put together in very tight quarters,” as Fischer described. In this situation, and others that have followed, Fischer said that it quickly became clear that the only solution to conflict was to help individuals find common ground, while balancing the necessity to hold a firm course of action in some instances. “In an environment like that, you realize just how much you rely on each other,” said Fischer. At Ball, Fischer said that his experience working with a variety at people both at the South Pole and at the University has been helpful insofar as Ball clients can possess a wide range of goals and organizational interests. “One of things you learn at Ball when you’re trying to propose a project is that you need to appeal to [the client’s] value system, so you have to figure out what that is,” Fischer said. For example, commercial customers do not necessarily wish to know the details of the process surrounding Ball’s development of technology to meet their needs, while Defense Department and NASA clients are more interested in the science being employed behind a given project.
Of his accomplishments at Ball, Fischer said, “I actually have a hard time coming up with a particular thing there. I’ve been involved with so many cool things at Ball.” When he first arrived at the company, Fischer was assigned the team tasked with drafting a proposal for the NASA Kepler mission, a proposal that was accepted by the organization and has found thousands of Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. “How cool is that?” said Fischer. During this period Fischer was also involved in a NASA project called Terrestrial Planet Finder, an initiative with the mission of finding and imaging extrasolar planets. Additionally, Fischer works on projects related to national security that he was obliged not to discuss in detail, but said that these projects are incredibly important and interesting. “It’s the ability of a company of this size that allows me to be engaged in all sorts of things that keeps me here,” said Fischer.
In addition to his full-time work at Ball, Fischer has also served in a variety of volunteer capacities for the University’s Alumni Association. A former president of the Alumni Club of Colorado and panelist at this year’s Career Month event in Denver, Fischer currently sits on the board of the Military Affinity Group due to his professional interest in national defense and his two daughters serving in the Marine Corps and Air Force, respectively. Of his volunteer service, Fischer said, “Chicago was transformational for me, so there’s an element of wanting to give back and give to the future in recognition of that.” The impetus for his volunteerism was Fischer’s desire to meet people with similar interests and backgrounds coming from the University, and it has been, “a really cool way to see the University from a different perspective,” he said. Through this experience Fischer noted that he has been able to meet people from a variety of University class years, and has found meaningful commonality in their experiences.
Considering that the University does not have an engineering degree, Fischer advises current students and recent alumni interested in a career in aerospace to not “try to compete with people who are actually trained as engineers, but they need to bring the skills that Chicago instills, which is really that ‘big picture’ skill.” Of his current work, Fischer noted that the liberal arts background that he possesses from his education at the University is a skillset that he brings with him to the office much more frequently than he refers back to his physics background. For individuals working in business or considering a career in that field, Fischer said that, “the ability to write, ask hard questions, think logically, demand evidence, and question assumptions: these things that seem kind of obvious are not that obvious in the business world.”