Blind JPL Student Intern Works on Mars-Bound Instrument

JPL student intern Kelly Wills Kelly Wills stands in front of JPL's Microdevices Lab. Image credit: NASA/JPL
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August 14, 2006

Not many teenagers can say they've worked on an instrument that will fly in space. Kelly Wills will be able to add that unusual accomplishment to his resume, after his experience working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory this summer. The 18-year-old student from Middletown, Ohio, loves science and plans to major in engineering physics. His accomplishments and goals are even more remarkable because he wants to be a scientist even though he can't see.

Wills is legally blind. As a child he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition. He hasn't been able to see anything more than blurred images or colors since he was in the eighth grade. But that doesn't stop him from working with spreadsheets for the tunable laser spectrometer, one of the instruments that will be used on the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory. When it is launched into space in 2009, the laboratory will be the largest rover ever sent to another planet. The laser spectrometer will allow scientists to determine the composition of rock samples and atmospheric gases around Mars.

Wills and his mentor for the summer, JPL senior research scientist Dr. Martin Buehler, are working in the JPL Microdevices Laboratory studying ways the spectrometer's battery can conserve energy once it reaches Mars. "We want to minimize the power consumed by the tunable laser spectrometer in order to accommodate other power-hungry units," Wills said.

With the help of his talking computer, Wills has been studying calculations and spreadsheets on the spectrometer's power consumption. "It may seem like only a small part, but Kelly's really doing a valuable job," Buehler said. "In fact, he found an error in one of the calculations."

Buehler needed to find a way to expose Wills to the circuit diagrams and graphs on the instrument. Buehler sought the help of his wife, who's familiar with arts and crafts, for a solution. "She suggested aluminum foil. She said I could draw the diagram and then Kelly could feel it on the other side," he said. The idea worked. Buehler now uses a tactile drawing kit to draw out images like circuit diagrams on a clear thin sheet of plastic so Wills can feel the raised lines, which are similar to Braille. "I don't have a problem feeling the lines," Wills said. "The circuit diagram helps me figure out the output voltage and things like that."

Wills was so excited about coming to work at JPL he skipped his high school graduation so he could start his 10-week internship on schedule. Wills was able to work at JPL through an internship with the National Federation for the Blind and JPL's Minority Education Initiatives Program.

This is the first time Wills has been away from home for this length of time, but says he has adjusted really well. "Everyone at JPL has been great," Wills said. "It's really cool working here." Since he's been in Los Angeles, Wills has attended a Dodgers game and a popular amusement park with a few other interns.

Buehler took Wills on a field trip to the desert so he could touch a cactus and hear the trains in the Cajon pass. "With a handicapped person we try to make them just like us. Instead, we should embrace their differences and hear their ideas. It really makes a difference," Buehler said.

This fall, Wills will take his JPL experiences with him to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where he will continue to study science and engineering. He says he wants to return to JPL and study nanotechnology.

When it comes to a confident spirit, Wills has 20-20 vision.

For more information on JPL's Minority Education Initiatives Program, visit: http://minorityeducation.jpl.nasa.gov/

For more information on JPL internships visit the JPL Education Gateway at: http://education.jpl.nasa.gov/

Media contact: Natalie Godwin/JPL 818-354-0850

Images

Kelly Wills and manager Martin Buehler work with tactile board

Wills and manager Martin Buehler work with tactile board. Image credit: NASA/JPL

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