Payam Banazadeh poses with the Engineering Design Unit test-model of the Curiosity rover

There was always something about the universe that mesmerized me. I still have recollections of staring at the night sky full of stars for hours thinking to myself how somewhere in this universe, something incredibly amazing is happening and yet we might not know about it.

It wasn't until high school that I started getting involved in my school's astronomy program and attending "star parties," where we would spend the night looking at different celestial objects with a variety of telescopes -- Schmidt-Cassegrains were my favorite.

A couple of years later, I found myself studying aerospace engineering at The University of Texas at Austin and learning about spacecraft design and space systems engineering. My adviser, Dr. Hans Mark, helped me apply for a summer internship at JPL during my sophomore year.

At this point, I knew little to nothing about what I really wanted to do as an aerospace engineer. I just knew I wanted to work for NASA and help scientists answer some fundamental questions about our universe, such as, "Are we alone?" or, "Is there water on Mars?"

During my first summer internship at JPL, I was part of a team of students who were tasked with designing a secondary payload for the proposed MoonRise mission. MoonRise would have been the first robotic sample-return mission from the moon. We designed a camera system that would have flown on the communications satellite and detected impact flashes from impacting meteorites.

MoonRise was not selected to fly, but this extraordinary experience completely changed my career path.

After my first summer internship at JPL, I knew exactly what I wanted to do as an aerospace engineer. I wanted to help formulate and design innovative concepts.

The next summer, I was fortunate to come back to JPL and work on the Mars Science Laboratory as a flight software team member. We were creating a platform to test the wake cycle robustness of the Curiosity rover. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity changed me forever. Not many people can say they worked on a rover that is currently on another planet. JPL made that possible for me.

At this point, I had my mind and heart set on getting a job at JPL upon graduation, so I came back to JPL as an intern for the third time during my senior year. This time, I was tasked with working at JPL's state-of-the-art concurrent engineering facility called Team X. I had come full circle to what I was most passionate about, formulation and systems engineering.

Meanwhile, in my free time back at UT-Austin, I was designing my own mission with CubeSats -- small satellites that can fit inside a 10-centimeter cube. With the help of my other aerospace engineer friends I proposed a CubeSat constellation to detect Earth-like planets by measuring the interaction between the stellar solar wind and the magnetosphere of the exoplanets.

I graduated from UT-Austin in December of 2012 with the highest of honors and received the "2012 Cockrell School of Engineering Scholar-Leader Award" from the dean of the engineering school. None of this would have been possible without the invaluable experience I gained as an intern at JPL. The internships at JPL were real hands-on opportunities on real projects. JPL empowered me as an intern and gave me real responsibilities and tasks that everyone on the team truly cared about. My three summer internships at JPL before graduation gave me the tools and fundamentals I needed to excel in any work environment immediately after graduation.

So now I work at JPL on formulation projects as a systems engineer. I have already sponsored interns at JPL as a mentor, and I love the fact that there is no limitation to how fast you can grow here. I am currently the project systems engineer and flight systems engineer on an interplanetary CubeSat mission and work on a variety of different innovative concepts on the side.

In my free time, I go to local schools to talk to students and motivate them to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees.

JPL was the tipping point in my career. Not only did I gain invaluable technical expertise from my internships, but I also gained the confidence and communication skills vital for any engineer, and especially for a systems engineer.

TAGS: Curiosity, University of Texas Austin, MoonRise, CubeSat, Systems Engineering


Ryan Clegg in a mock spacesuit

When people ask me what I want to do with my life, I tell them, "Every little kid wants to be an astronaut when they grow up - but I never outgrew it." It was in eighth grade that I realized I wanted to be an astronaut and explore our solar system. The journey wasn't always easy, however. I was consistently laughed at and made fun of in high school when I would tell people that my dream was to work at NASA and one day become an astronaut. No one really expected me to stick to those dreams, let alone accomplish them.

Fast forward a few years, and I entered college at the Florida Institute of Technology, where I double-majored in physics and space science to learn more about stars and comets. One moment I will never forget is orientation day for my department. A professor asked the freshmen in the room who wanted to be an astronaut, and every hand in the room shot up. I knew I was in the right place.

In my sophomore year, an upperclassman sent an email around about a scholarship-internship program with NASA, called MUST (Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology). I figured it was a long shot, but decided to apply. To my delight, I was selected and given the opportunity to begin living out my dream by interning at Kennedy Space Center for the summer. I worked for Dr. Philip Metzger, a granular physicist who leads NASA's research into rocket blast effects for manned missions. In the Granular Mechanics and Surface Systems Laboratory, I designed and built experiments to study how the spray of lunar soil from a landing rocket will impinge upon and damage hardware at a future lunar outpost.

This NASA experience changed the course of my career, in a very good way. I suddenly realized I was far more interested in the surfaces of planets and in planetary exploration than in stars and astrophysics, and decided after that summer to pursue planetary science for my graduate studies.

I returned to KSC the next summer to work with Dr. Metzger on a new project that involved studying the compaction and magnetic properties of lunar soil using various experimental methods. We were working on developing more effective ways to store large quantities of soil for mining.

The summer before starting graduate school, I was offered an internship at JPL working on the proposed MoonRise mission, lead by my (soon-to-be) advisor, Dr. Bradley Jolliff. MoonRise would have been a robotic sample return mission to the lunar farside. I was part of a team of students who were tasked with designing an instrument to fly on the spacecraft. We designed a camera system that would have flown on the communications satellite and detected impact flashes from impacting meteorites. Unfortunately, MoonRise was not selected to fly, but the experience shaped my future career path. I realized I really enjoy the mission design and planning process and decided that summer that I wanted to both study the moon and plan for future missions.

I am now a couple years shy of having my Ph.D. in Earth and Planetary Science, and have loved the journey. My research focuses on studying the effects of rocket exhaust on lunar soil properties and volcanic complexes on the moon. Once I have finished my graduate studies, I plan to apply for a position at NASA and become involved in mission planning. I hope to work on the problems associated with rocket exhaust effects on planetary surfaces and continue to research geologically interesting locations on the moon. Ultimately, I plan to apply to become an astronaut candidate and maybe even become the first woman to walk on the moon! My NASA internships helped me realize my true passions and have paved the way for the career path I want to take. I'm incredibly happy in the field I'm in and hope that funding for both NASA and NASA education programs continues so that other students with dreams like mine have a chance to see them come true.

TAGS: Planetary Science, Physics, Moon, Career Guidance, MoonRise, Women in STEM