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JPL Summer Interns Meet the Mentors

JPL Summer Interns Meet the Mentors NASA/JPL engineer Robert Hogg shows intern Alexander Kern the engineering model for the Mars Science Laboratory in JPL's In-Situ Instrument Lab. Image credit: NASA/JPL

June 25, 2010

The mentors at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are as diverse as the disciplines required for space exploration. This summer, more than 200 JPL scientists and engineers are paired with roughly 350 students and visiting faculty. The common key ingredient in mentors is that they want to give guidance to those interested in pursuing science and engineering careers.

"As a mentor," says planetary geologist Deborah Bass, "we try to introduce students to different experiences in research and in a work environment. For some, we help them understand what working at a full-time job is like, including setting goals and responding to a 'boss.' For others, it is endeavoring to produce a manuscript or conference paper that can be published. Mostly, we want to provide a positive experience and allow them to learn a new skill, learn something about JPL and something about themselves."

Bass works on long-term strategic science planning for the Mars Program and has been a science team member for the Mars Exploration Rovers and the Deputy Project Scientist for the Phoenix Mars Lander. She and Charles Budney, a scientist who works on Mars mission concepts, are co-mentors this summer to two undergraduates, one high school teacher and one visiting university faculty member. Each of their "students" is conducting research about Mars.

While Bass and Budney focus on science aspects of space exploration, robotics engineer Robert Hogg builds robots. Hogg is working on the motor controls for the Mars Science Laboratory, which is the next rover going to Mars. The mission is scheduled to launch in late 2011. Before working on the largest rover NASA has built for Mars, Hogg worked on urban and micro robots. This summer, he is mentoring a Los Angeles-area high school student.

"My job as a mentor is to give students a good feel for all of the different aspects of engineering in practice," explains Hogg. "I also want to broaden their view of what they themselves can create and achieve now and in the future!"

While Hogg and other mentors want to share their knowledge, they also want students to contribute. "When students are brought up to speed," Hogg notes, "they contribute significantly to the area they are working in, and so my work benefits as well - they do contribute to fulfilling NASA and JPL's mission."

Often depending on a student's academic level, mentors may be very hands on and work closely with a student. In other cases, mentors are less frequently involved in day-to-day activities but always have an open door for the intern.

Bass and Hogg, along with many other mentors, were once NASA or JPL interns and have a desire to give back. "I want to keep up a strong 'pipeline' of young scientists and engineers," Bass explains. "I believe one of my responsibilities as a more-senior scientist is to provide opportunities and coaching to those aspiring towards their own futures."

It's also just plain fun to share the thrill of exploration. "When students get a chance to work on a piece of one of these projects at JPL, they can see that what they are learning is contributing to new exploration that has never been done before," says Hogg. "I think that is something that can't be experienced anywhere else."

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