Daniel’s ever-expanding horizons

On the homepage of his website, Daniel Baker ’97 describes himself as a “photographer, geek and more”.

The word “more” is an understatement. The Applied Physics graduate is also a computer programmer for NASA, occasional actor, volunteer for MDUK and trustee of DMD Pathfinders, a charity which helps adults with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

Duchenne is a serious condition that causes progressive muscle weakness from early childhood. Usually, it only affects boys. There are about 2,500 boys and men with the condition in the UK.

Daniel lives with Duchenne, as do nearly all the trustees and the CEO of Pathfinders. Although it’s a small charity, it provides a unique and valuable service.

Daniel explains, “Other charities, like MDUK and Duchenne UK, are funding research and doing other important work to support people. But their remit is much broader than ours, we’re directly supporting people living with Duchenne. Most people with the condition die in their twenties. There are few of us over that age. Pathfinders helps adults to live their lives in society.”

Studying at Oxford Brookes

For Daniel, living at Brookes would have been too complicated so he travelled every day from his home in Cheltenham. His carer took him home at a set time each day which meant he missed out on the traditional student social life.

“At the time I didn’t mind but looking back it’s disappointing.”

However he did enjoy his course. Highlights included the lab work, an Optics module that involved “playing with lasers” and a module called Origins, looking at the origin of the universe and life on Earth – an intellectual adventure which Daniel relished. He also did a lot of work with computers, learning more about programming than his lecturers.

“I worked with Dr Gazey from Rutherford Appleton Laboratories on my dissertation project, The Northern Lights as Monitors of Magnetic Substorm Dynamics. It was about creating software to analyse the data.

“It confused the Physics Department because it was so computer based. I had to learn a new computer language. But Dr Gazey was very pleased with it.

“There was a lot of contact with the observation station up in the Arctic. This was at the start of using email. These days we’d have used Skype.”

In his final year at Brookes, Daniel’s health declined but he was still able to finish the course and attend his graduation.

The reality of living with Duchenne is tough. Daniel has spent long periods of his life confined to bed and his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut could only ever be a dream. But Daniel is resourceful when it comes to finding ways to achieve his ambitions – so when an opportunity came along to do work for NASA, he took it.

Working for NASA

“In 2005, there was a post on a website called Slashdot – NASA wanted volunteers for an open source project called World Wind. So I joined their forum, started chatting and built up a relationship with them.

“It was an interesting time. I learned lot from the people on there. After a year, I was put on the team.”

World Wind is a virtual globe with real satellite imagery and 3D terrain that predates Google Earth. For Daniel it was a chance to contribute to a fascinating project and to explore places he would never be able to visit.

Daniel worked full-time on the project. He was confined to bed at that time and was sleeping in the day and working at night, which fitted in with the time-zones of most people on the project. He eventually became the Open Source Project Manager.

“I built up my skills in dealing with government departments and big companies like Microsoft and Google. And I was dealing with people who were very intelligent which sometimes was easy…but sometimes quite challenging!

“I also learnt a lot about geographical information-based systems. Some of it took me back to my Physics which I hadn’t really used since Brookes. It was a good way of using it.”

TV, photography and expanding horizons

Daniel also taught himself to use animation software.

“A couple of people on the NASA forums introduced me to it. I programmed animation for an American TV series. It was a lot of hard work but worth it.”

And his TV credits extend to being in front of the camera as well.

“I was in a TV series last year – Requiem. MDUK were approached by the studio and suggested me. It was an amazing experience. Something I’d never dreamed of doing and it was so enjoyable. I’m still in contact with quite a lot of the actors. They were like a big family.”

In recent years Daniel has been able to get about more. He took up photography six years ago – a hobby that gives him the motivation to travel to attractive and interesting places, such as the Cotswolds, Slimbridge Wetland Centre and Gloucester Cathedral.

In November 2018 Daniel was awarded the High Sheriff of Gloucestershire Award. The High Sheriff’s speech described “his fight against Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy” and “his spirited quest not to let this condition hold him back from achieving his ambitions” as “an inspiration to us all”.

And what is next for Daniel?

“I’m always looking to expand my mind and my horizons. I get bored doing the same things after a while so I look for new experiences. I’d like to do a Master’s degree if I can find the right course – one that really interests me.”

Words by Sirius Gibson

Keep up to date with Daniel’s blog and photos at daniel-baker.photography

Read about another alumnus who is creative with computers – Julian Woodfield ’83