Dallas Elleman interned with the Microdevices Laboratory at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the summer of 2014.

Dallas Elleman in the Microdevices Laboratory at JPL

I'm trying to figure out exactly which decision it was that started me on the unlikely path to where I am now -- enjoying this remarkable summer internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in sunny Pasadena, California. Fourteen years ago, I decided to forego a college education in favor of moving to Austin, Texas, to become a rock star with my best friends from high school. That didn't pan out for us. But it was only after five years of being a dad, throwing and attending little kid birthday parties, and slogging through the daily grind of the uneducated man's perpetual life of toil and bills that I finally decided to give college a shot. Why?

The final straw came unexpectedly. In the summer of 2012, my wife, our three girls and I were in the middle of a family camping trip. I was finishing the final pages of a book on neuroscience entitled, "Free Will", when that became the culmination of a 12-year quest for meaning and direction in my life. I read the last words on the last page, and the sense of peace and purpose that I had been looking for settled upon me like a cloud of butterflies. I was 30 years old, and I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up! I wanted to help make the world a better place through science and discovery, through exploration of this beautiful planet and universe. Yup, that's probably the moment when my life began its inexorable crawl toward JPL.

The first step in achieving my goal of "net world-happiness increase" was to enroll at my local school for highly motivated nontraditional students: Tulsa Community College (TCC). Roughly a year and a half after that strategic victory, I learned of a limited number of TCC-funded summer internships to this place called JPL, which I had never heard of. I had heard of NASA though -- and I knew roughly where Mars was located -- so I made this internship my primary goal and spent nearly every spare moment planning and working toward it, in between school, work, and my family life.

In May of this year, I was selected as a JPL intern along with two other students from my class, never suspecting that such a profoundly worthwhile and transformative experience would ensue. In June, I began working with JPL microfluidics specialist and engineer Mike Lee in JPL's Non Destructive Evaluation and Advanced Actuators Lab and in the Microdevices Lab. I am helping with a project called the AstroBioNibbler. It's a conceptual spacecraft instrument whose goal is to detect minute biomarkers in regolith and extraplanetary rocks. We're not on a mission -- yet -- but that's what we're working toward.

The work here is rewarding and stimulating, the people are inspiring, the activities and talks are mind-blowing. I feel humbled and grateful to be lending my hands to something so huge and important as this: humanity's quest for knowledge of the cosmos. NASA and JPL's space program have become part of my identity now. I am sure that I'll never feel like Mars is quite as far away as I used to and that, whether I'm invited back next summer or not, I'll always be a JPLer at heart. But seriously, invite me back, please.

If you would like to follow Dallas' experiences throughout the summer as a JPL intern, check out his blog at: omnidimensionalcheesesandwich.wordpress.com.

TAGS: Engineering, Microdevices, AstroBioNibbler, Tulsa Community College

  • Dallas Elleman