Astronaut Ellen Ochoa, professional baseball player Stephen Strasburg and artist John Baldessari

Before They Were Stars

Ellen Ochoa. Stephen Strasburg. John Baldessari. These alumni rocketed to the top of their fields (Ochoa, literally)—as an astronaut, professional baseball player and artist. But first they were local kids who came to State. The university became the launchpad that helped them achieve success on a national scale—and beyond.

June 15, 2020


Astronaut, Ellen Ochoa

Astronaut Ellen Ochoa. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Ellen Ochoa

From La Mesa to Mission Control

By Jeff Ristine 

In the late 1970s, San Diego State University offered little refuge from the blatant sexism that chased many women out of what are now known as the STEM fields.

“Well, you know, course work’s really difficult,” an electrical engineering professor told student Ellen Ochoa when she came by to explore a possible major. He picked up some components she didn’t recognize in an effort to further daunt her. “You’ll have to work with these.”

Luckily, Ochoa—who went on to become an astronaut and director of the Johnson Space Center—found a more receptive home in the physics department, where a professor told her of possible jobs associated with a physics degree.

“That was incredibly important because I didn’t know any scientists,” Ochoa said, recounting the story during her October 2019 visit to SDSU to receive an honorary doctorate. “I honestly had just no concept of what it is that you did with a physics degree, which is probably one of the reasons I hadn’t thought about it prior to that.”

Her 1980 bachelor’s degree in the subject served as a springboard to a master’s degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University, three patents as a co-inventor in optics, four trips into Earth’s orbit and five years at the helm of the space center from 2013 to 2018.

Physics professor Jeff Davis, who recommended Ochoa to Stanford, remembers her as an inquisitive student. “She would always be asking questions—they were penetrating questions,” he says. Davis was new to SDSU when Ochoa came along and he credits working on experiments with her with helping him learn about the field of Fourier optics, a discipline which ties into her interests in both electrical engineering and math. “I became an expert in this subject—and it was her thesis that started me on that,” Davis says.

Davis still uses Ochoa’s senior project in optical information processing to teach students a key mathematical operation in physics—the Fourier transform. The project—an assembly that consists of a laser aimed through a pinhole and a set of lenses—has some new components since Ochoa and a lab partner first turned it in to Davis, but is essentially the same as when she worked on it. It now occupies a shakeproof table in a third-floor lab in SDSU’s Physics building.

Ochoa grew up in La Mesa with her mother and four brothers and sisters and graduated at the top of her class in math at Grossmont High. When she got to SDSU, she considered subjects for study over a wide range of fields, including business, journalism, computer science and music.

Even after picking physics, Ochoa pursued her love of music. She became an accomplished flutist, with the Music building serving as a pressure release in a schedule laden with as many as four physics classes at a time. She spent two years performing with the MarchingAztecs in football halftime shows and also played in the SDSU Wind Ensemble. One of her favorite memories is the time famed American composer Aaron Copland conducted the performers during a campus visit, Ochoa recalled in her October lecture.

Campus bulletin-board notices led Ochoa to summer jobs in labs at the University of California, San Diego, and Los Alamos National Laboratory. “Those were great introductions to research,” she said, “and I decided I wanted to go down the path of being a research engineer.”

And as for working with electronic components, Ochoa deftly operated the robotic arm of the space shuttle Discovery to deploy and recapture a satellite on her first space flight. An inspiring role model to youth as NASA’s first Latinx female astronaut, she now has six schools named for her.


Ochoa poses with her senior project in optical information processing in 1980.

Ochoa poses with her senior project in optical information processing in 1980.

“I honestly had just no concept of what it is that you did with a physics degree.”
—Ellen Ochoa 

 

Stephen Strasburg

From Santee to World Series MVP

By Ryan Schuler

After eight innings, the Air Force Academy hits total on the scoreboard reads: 0.

Stephen Strasburg returns to the mound for the ninth inning, the final inning he’ll pitch in an Aztecs uniform at Tony Gwynn Stadium. He faces three batters: Strikeout swinging. Strikeout swinging. Strikeout looking.
Game over. Strasburg has thrown a no-hitter.

“It was electric,” says SDSU head baseball coach Mark Martinez, an assistant coach during that May 8, 2009 game. “You could tell he knew it was his last time pitching on the Mesa.”

The eyes of the baseball world were on Strasburg, who ended his junior season with a 13-1 record, a 1.32 earned run average, 195 strikeouts and 19 walks over 109 innings. A month after the no-hitter, he was selected first overall in the Major League Baseball draft—the first player in SDSU history to earn the distinction—by the Washington Nationals.

Fast forward 10 years to Oct. 30, 2019: The Nationals are celebrating their first World Series championship in franchise history—and it’s Strasburg holding the Most Valuable Player trophy.
Strasburg had become the first MLB pitcher to go 5-0 in the postseason.

It was the potential SDSU baseball fans saw each time Strasburg took the Aztecs mound from 2007 to 2009. “When he was here, he had an unbelievable competitive spirit, a laser focus,” Martinez says. “What he did in the World Series mirrored what he did here. He was dominant.”


Professional baseball player Stephen Strasburg

Strasburg during his Aztec years. Photo by Ernie Anderson.


Strasburg pitching for the Nationals in 2019

Strasburg pitching for the Nationals in 2019. Photo © Brad Mills – USA TODAY NETWORK.

Strasburg attended West Hills High School in Santee, just a 15-minute drive northeast of campus. Despite possessing a 90+ mph fastball and promising talent, he admittedly came to SDSU undisciplined and with a poor mental game. As a freshman, he struggled in preseason workouts, many times causing more sprints for the team. But in the fall semester of his freshman year Martinez saw a new work ethic and mindset in Strasburg that continued throughout his junior year.

“The mental part was learned,” Martinez says. “Tony Gwynn, who was head coach at the time, had a huge impact on Stephen’s mental game through his mentorship. And Rusty Filter, our pitching coach then, instilled the competitiveness. He demanded it.”

“We pushed him, but it was Stephen who made the decision to be great,” he says.

Strasburg’s drive for excellence is something his former teammates emphasize as well.

“Everyone remembers him as the consensus No. 1 draft pick and such a talent out of San Diego State that sometimes you forget that there was still a lot of room for improvement,” says Erik Castro, former SDSU catcher and roommate. “He has worked really hard to get to where he’s at.” 

As a freshman, Strasburg pitched in middle relief before being promoted to closer—giving fans glimpses of what would be. He finished the season with seven saves in 25 appearances, compiling a 2.43 earned run average with 47 strikeouts in 37 innings. As his confidence rose, so did his fastball velocity, routinely registering 100 mph.

Strasburg transitioned to the starting rotation in his sophomore year. In his seventh start for the Aztecs, he took the mound against the University of Utah, sitting down 23 Utes via strikeout—the most in Division I since 1973—and gained national attention in the process. The following summer, he brought home a bronze medal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he was the only amateur on Team USA.

Despite the expectations and hype that have surrounded Strasburg since his days donning an Aztec uniform, he has proved no stage, and no lineup, is too daunting.

Castro says, “To see him come full circle from his time at San Diego State to the World Series and grow over the last 10 years is pretty special.”
 

“We pushed him, but it was Stephen who made the decision to be great.”
—Mark Martinez 

 


Artist, John Baldassari

A 2011 portrait of John Baldessari by Hedi Slimane, courtesy of the Estate of John Baldessari.

John Baldessari

From National City to International Acclaim

By Lisa Haney

Legendary conceptual artist John Baldessari, who died in January at age 88, helped make Los Angeles part of the global art scene, mentored many prominent contemporary artists and taught countless others. More than 1,000 exhibitions around the world have featured his work.

But before all that, the National City native studied art at what was then San Diego State College.

Baldessari's talents for art and teaching were evident even as an undergrad. He won first place in a campus poster contest and was the first student to give a talk at a fine arts gallery in Balboa Park. He even filled in to teach a class for a sick professor. Baldessari earned his bachelor’s degree in 1953 and a master’s degree in 1957.

He began his career as a semiabstract painter, but you won't find any of his early work.

In 1970, Baldessari took all his old paintings to a San Diego crematorium and burned them. He documented the process and posted an affidavit about it in a local newspaper. Then he mixed the ashes into cookies and displayed them at a museum. The “Cremation Project” marked Baldessari’s move into the conceptual. In a 1971 work, he famously vowed “I will not make any more boring art.”

In the following decades, he became known for mixing mediums. “Artists want to communicate, to say hello to the world,” Baldessari told 360 in 2009. “I tried to give people a language they could understand by combining the photos and the words.”

That year he received the prestigious Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Venice Biennale, and a retrospective of his work opened at the Tate Modern in London. President Barack Obama presented Baldessari with the 2014 National Medal of Arts, with a citation that read: “His ambitious work combines photography, painting and text to push the boundaries of image, making him one of the most influential conceptual artists of our time.”

“He brought a level of wit and humor and sort of tongue-in-cheek lightheartedness to this very serious theoretical approach to art,” says Annie Buckley, director of the SDSU School of Art and Design. “And he was able to marry the two in a way that I think helped people who might not typically have an understanding of conceptual art to feel a part of it.”

In addition to his own work, Baldessari is remembered for his teaching. He was a mentor to influential contemporary artists including David Salle, Jim Shaw, Meg Cranston and the late Mike Kelley. And taught many others at University of California, San Diego (1967 to 1970), the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia (1970 to 1988) and University of California, Los Angeles (1996 to 2007).


Baldessari's photo in the Del Sudoeste yearbook, 1953.

Baldessari's photo in the Del Sudoeste yearbook, 1953.

“He wasn’t about trying to create Mini-Mes, he was really about helping young artists learn to trust themselves and their own vision,” Buckley says.

Baldessari returned to SDSU as an artist in residence in 1987 for a two-day program of lectures, discussions and student-work critiques. “He was extremely generous with our students,” says Tina Yapelli, senior curator of the SDSU Downtown Gallery. And although he was a formidable presence in the contemporary art world at that point, he agreed to sleep on a pull-out couch in Yapelli’s then one-bedroom apartment when budget didn’t allow for a hotel room. “This is how rather humble he was,” Yapelli says. “He put his and his student’s work first and didn’t put himself and his ego first.”

Baldessari also lent his work for exhibitions at the SDSU Downtown Gallery in 2010 and 2013. He received an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree from SDSU in 2003.

“He has this double faceted legacy as both a maker and an educator,” Yapelli says. “His impact in terms of his own work is phenomenal, but when you add to that the impact of all the artists whom he influenced by being their teacher, it’s impossible to even calculate.”

“Artists want to communicate, to say hello to the world.”
—John Baldessari