Taking risks takes Binghamton University alumnus to NASA

A once-reluctant Watson School student succeeds by taking chances

James Warner '08 Image Credit: Casey Staff.
James Warner '08
James Warner '08 Photography: Casey Staff.

Imagine being stuck with every decision you made as a teenager. Forever wearing those bellbottom jeans or continuing to use a Razr cell phone that you once thought was the absolute peak of technology.

Not all teenage decisions last — nor should they — but 18-year-olds can also make some life-altering choices.

Take, for instance, James Warner ’08. At 18, his choices were haphazard and his future uncertain. But today he is an accomplished athlete and a computer scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia.

He never imagined things would lead where they did, but he found his path by embracing uncertainty.

Missing the deadline

“When I was in high school, I didn’t care much about my classes and I really didn’t have any big plans to go to college. No one in my family had ever been to college. I applied to a community college and then threw in my application to Binghamton University. I even missed the application deadline,” Warner says.

Despite his mistake, Warner’s application was accepted.

“When I first came to campus, I didn’t even have a dorm room yet — probably because I applied so late. I was on a waiting list and lived in a community center for two weeks until a room became available.”

Once on campus, he made two more major decisions; he started studying mechanical engineering and he joined the crew team.

“I had never been athletic before, but the crew team seemed like something fun to do, so I signed myself up.”

From that point forward, two passions emerged in Warner’s life. He became an avid athlete and a dedicated engineer.

He went on to Cornell to pursue his PhD and after graduation applied for a position at NASA.

“I didn’t think I’d ever work somewhere like NASA. If you asked me as an undergrad, of course, I would have loved the idea, but it wasn’t on my radar originally. I just saw some job openings that were interesting and decided to apply.”

A once-uncertain 18-year-old, Warner now works in uncertainty quantification for structural health management systems, a job that he compares to predicting the weather.

“Whenever you see the weather forecast, they usually include something that says ‘50 percent chance of rain.’ That’s a way to quantify something that is currently uncertain,” he explains. “My job is to figure out those types of calculations for health systems on a plane or a spaceship so that we can accurately say things like, ‘There’s a 68 percent chance this system will fail in these particular conditions.’”

He describes his work as applying computer science to mechanical applications and says his mechanical engineering degree has been invaluable in helping him understand more practically what his calculations are being applied to.

Despite his demanding schedule, Warner also takes time to connect with the Mechanical Engineering Department when he comes back to Binghamton. He has helped students get internships at NASA and recently presented his research to the department.

Paul Chiarot, associate professor and director of graduate studies for the department, says, “We are so fortunate to have close relationships with alumni like Jim Warner. Our current students greatly value the knowledge and perspective shared by our alumni during their campus visits.”

NASA scientist hits the road

Engineering wasn’t the only part of Warner’s Binghamton education. As a member of the Binghamton crew team, he became more interested in athletics than he ever was in high school and started participating in the team’s annual John McKenna IV Memorial 5K, in memory of a former team member killed in Iraq.

In graduate school, he started training for triathlons and made sure to return to Binghamton University every year for the McKenna Memorial 5K.

“When I was living in Ithaca, it just became a habit to run the 5K each year. After I moved to Virginia, I didn’t want the streak to end!” This year was the 12th year that Warner has been a part of the race. “I think my friend Will [William Thompson ’09, PhD ’16] and I are the only ones who have held the streak for so long.”

While Warner has continued to race 5Ks, marathons, triathlons and now works part time as a personal trainer, he decided to take on his biggest athletic challenge in summer 2017.

That’s when he biked from Cannon Beach, Ore., to Virginia Beach, Va., by himself. The trip was close to 4,000 miles and took two months to complete.

“It had always been a bucket-list item for me,” Warner says. “I barely took any time off while working at NASA, so I had enough vacation time to make it happen.”

He embarked on the journey with only a vague idea of the path he would follow, riding his trusty bike, which he named Frank the Tank. “I was most nervous about biking over the Rockies. I wasn’t quite sure how that would go.

I was happy that was fairly early in the trip, though, so that I could get that out of the way,” he says. “Seeing Denver on the other side was my favorite part because it was met with a great sigh of relief. I knew I could do the rest of the journey once I made it to Denver.”

While Warner knew to expect a difficult ride up the Rockies, he says he was most surprised by the terrain in Idaho.

“Did you know Idaho is mostly desert? I had no idea. It was a rough area to get through.”

Throughout the trip, Warner would take a break every few days to rest his legs and log into his computer to check in on his work at NASA.

Not only was this journey an athletic challenge for Warner, it also came with a special goal. He wanted to use the bike ride to raise $10,000 for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Virginia Peninsula.

“My dad grew up in Chicago and his family wasn’t always around, so he spent a lot of time at the Boys & Girls Clubs. So that group has always been near and dear to my heart, and I wanted to be able to give back to them.”

Just a few days before arriving in Virginia Beach, Warner hit his $10,000 fundraising goal and eventually raised in excess of $13,000. A group of kids and volunteers from the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Virginia Peninsula met him on the beach to celebrate his arrival.

The bike ride may have been an athletic triumph, but Warner says being disconnected from his social and work life for two months taught him more about life and himself than he had expected.

His biggest takeaways from the trip? In his blog, written during his journey, Warner listed his life lessons from the trip as: “people are good, this country is beautiful, commit before you are ready and you’ll never know what you’re capable of until you try.”

From his days as a teenager with an unclear future to his own research in uncertainty quantification at NASA, and now with his solo journey on a bike across difficult terrain, Warner has embraced the unknown and taken risks others would never dream of in pursuit of his passions.

What Warner has accomplished has been extraordinary, but he feels like it has less to do with who he is and more to do with an attitude toward life.

He says, “I’m not superhuman, I’m just like you. I just believed that I could do this. And I wanted it bad enough to take the risk and follow through with it.”