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Brina Peck & Gaj Birur - BEYOND THE VILLAGE

By Blog Master
Posted: 03/29/2022
Tags: bios

Sabrina Peck and Gaj Birur


Sabrina Peck and Gaj Birur are new members of the Pasadena Village. As Brina (as she is known to her friends) puts it, “Some of my neighbors, who are so friendly, are members and that made me want to join.” Gaj has joined the hiking group and both participate with the urban walkers


Sabrina was born and raised in Cambridge, MA. From an early age, and largely because of the impact of her wonderful teachers, she wanted to become either an elementary school teacher or a college professor. When it came time for college she attended her local university, which happened to be Harvard. She really wanted to go to Stanford but her family said it was too far away.


After starting out with a major in German literature, she settled on a degree in Social Relations, which combines social psychology and sociology.   Armed with her degree, she worked for a year as a secretary, while taking Spanish in the evening. She then put her education to work, first as a teacher trainer in Peru, and then by teaching ESL and bilingual first grade in the Boston Public Schools.


Listening to her students’ lunchtime conversations, she became interested in how children learn English from each other. As a result, she headed west to UCLA where she earned her PhD in Applied Linguistics. One of her first jobs after getting her PhD was to design a Spanish course for social workers for the UCLA School of Social Welfare. After a stint at Los Angeles City College, Brina spent the next 26 years at Cal State University at Northridge in the Elementary Education Department and the Linguistics/TESL Program. She taught ESL methods, basic linguistics and research methods to MA and credential students. 


As her father aged, she enjoyed speaking French with him and a Haitian caregiver. This led her to carry out library research on how older adults learn a foreign language. She discovered a 1966-1981 Australian program in which 400 older people learned how to read German. Following that model, she designed a class, Reading Spanish for Beginners, which she teaches now at the Pasadena Senior Center. “It’s fun, successful,” and includes Village members among the students. 


Brina’s other volunteer work is as a volunteer tax preparer for low income adults through the AARP IRS tax aid program. Every year she takes preparatory workshops and passes exams to qualify to perform this important service for mostly older adults.


In addition to her volunteer work Brina keeps her language skills fluent by taking time to read, write, or listen to French, Spanish, or German.


Sabrina’s husband, Gaj Birur, was born and grew up on the other side of the world – in the Bangalore area of southern India. After earning a Master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, Gaj came to the United States to study aeronautical engineering at Penn State, eventually earning a PhD in mechanical engineering from Drexel University in Philadelphia. In 1979 he was lured west by JPL where he spent the rest of his working career.


Gaj’s specialty at JPL is temperature control of spacecraft in space and on planetary surfaces. He worked on several Mars rover missions, starting with Mars Pathfinder in 1994 to Mars rover Curiosity in 2012. Gaj designed and built equipment and systems to keep equipment at safe temperatures in space and on Mars. Although he retired in 2015 he still works a few days a week advising his younger colleagues and reviewing design elements.


Although Gaj left India to pursue his education and career across the world, his family remains in Bangalore. “My passion has been to provide science outreach to elementary school kids in rural areas and in the inner city, both here in the US and in India.” In India, middle class children go to private schools where they learn English and have plenty of resources. Poor, often migrant, children go to public schools, which are free and provide a hot meal every day. Those are the children that Raj wants to help.


Through a family foundation headed by his older brother in Bangalore, Gaj and others recruit graduate student volunteers in Bangalore to go into the schools to supplement and enhance the education with a focus on science. “We want to keep the children in school, especially in those key years of 8 to 14, when they are beginning to think of what they might be able to do. We want to show them what they can do in the fields of science.” Since 2015 he has been working with Teach for India fellows in Bangalore, training 5th to 7th grade students in robotic design at ten government (public) primary schools. Click on the link to learn more about Gaj's science outreach work in India.


In addition to working with schools in India, Gaj has recruited JPL volunteers to go into schools in Boyle Heights and even in Pasadena. “We tell them about the space missions, which is very exciting, and link their studies in science to future careers.” He has also given talks to public elementary school children in rural areas in the Northeastern part of Vermont during the summer months.


Sabrina and Gaj are examples of older adults who are active and engaged in their community, AND, also looking for opportunities to broaden their circle of support, be prepared for the future – so they can continue to make a difference beyond the Village.

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