Since we can’t yet travel to planets outside our solar system, JPL intern Tre’Shunda James creates models of them right here on Earth. We caught up with the Occidental College physics and chemistry major to learn how she’s pointing the way toward potentially habitable worlds while helping lead the way toward diversity in her field.
What are you working on at JPL?
My project this summer is studying exoplanet atmospheres and the chemical components that are present in those atmospheres. I'm running a bunch of simulations, or models, using a computer code that my JPL mentor, Renyu Hu, published back when he was in grad school. I change a few things, run the models, look at the results, compile them and analyze what they can tell me about oxygen, which is a possible sign of life on these exoplanets [planets outside our solar system]. So in that way, it's really pushing the field forward in terms of finding out if life could exist on similar planets.
What’s the ultimate goal of the project?
The parameters we put into the model are to simulate a terrestrial, habitable exoplanet. Scientists have discovered exoplanets that are terrestrial, but we don't yet know if there's life on them. So this model is a theoretical basis that we can apply to many exoplanets that are discovered to see if they could support life. We just submitted the paper on our findings a couple weeks ago.
What's an average day like for you?
Right before we submitted the paper, we were working nonstop on that. It was the hardest I’ve worked in such a short time. But it was very rewarding. It was the first time I’ve been an author on a science paper, so it was pretty cool. I learned a lot.
Typically, I'd come in and look at my code. Sometimes it would run a couple hours and it would be done or it would run a couple days, so I was always anxious to see where it was when I get to my desk. If it was done running, I’d take the results, make graphs, make figures and analyze what I could. And if wasn’t done, I'd usually just start a new simulation.
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How do you feel you're contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?
I feel that with the publication, I will contribute a lot, especially because we're scratching surfaces that have never been explored before.
I also feel that I’m contributing as an African American, female engineer doing work in planetary science. I was looking up women in planetary science, specifically African American women, and the only one I could find passed away in 2015. So I feel as though just being here, exploring this field, is pushing the boundaries, and I'm excited about that.
How did you find out about the JPL internship?
I'm a member of a group called COSMOS, Creating Opportunities in Science and Math for Occidental Students. They put me in contact with the SIRI program in the JPL Education Office last year. Before that, I didn’t even know that JPL existed.
What's been your impression of JPL?
It's kind of like school. It's like going to school with your professors. It’s pretty cool, the collaborative environment.
OK, now for the fun question: If you could travel anywhere in space, where would you go and what would you do there?
I would like to go to Saturn, mostly because I think it's beautiful, and it's one of the first planets that I ever learned about. What would I do there? I don't know exactly. It’s funny because I never really had a real interest in space until I started interning here. So everything is still kind of new to me, and I'm just learning about new missions and worlds every day.
What about any of the exoplanets that you're studying? Would you want to go check out any of them?
One thing we're looking to do is study the atmospheres of [the seven planets found orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1]. That would be really cool, especially because it's so close and it's one of the most recent planet-system discoveries. The Exoplanet Travel Bureau posters make it hard not to want to visit these places.
This Q&A is part of an ongoing series highlighting the stories and experiences of students and faculty who came to JPL as part of the laboratory's collaboration with historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. › Read more from the series
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.