Update: Nov. 7, 2019 – In 2018, Ryan Loper was offered and accepted a full-time position with the team he interned with for two summers at JPL. He now works as a mechanical engineer at the Laboratory.
During his seven years in the Marine Corps, traveling around the world, Ryan Loper saw how much an education could change a person’s life. When his service ended, he enrolled in community college, just to, “take a couple of classes and see,” he said – until it ended up changing the course of his life as well. Now a student at Stanford, a two-time JPL intern, and an alumnus of and volunteer for the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program, Loper is helping build a test bed for a next-generation space telescope. We caught up with him to find out how he made the transition from military to student life and what he hopes his future at JPL will bring.
What are you working on at JPL?
I'm working on an optical test bed, where we’re trying to make a telescope similar to one we would put in space, but a much smaller size.
What's the ultimate goal of the project?
We’re preparing for the next-generation space telescope. We want to get to what they call “first light,” where you get light to come through the telescope and detect it. Eventually, the team wants to take [the telescope] out and observe a star with it and be able to make measurements.
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What's a typical day like for you?
They're almost never the same. Just about every day, we have a morning meeting with the principal investigator, the systems engineer for the project and two other interns working on the same project. We talk about where we got yesterday, what our plan is for the day and things we might have to consider going forward. We're producing drawings now on some of the test-bed parts. We're trying to find the right design. Then, as much as I can, I try to get out onto the lab and meet new people and reconnect with some of the people who I met during my internship last year.
You were in the Marines before going to college. Can you tell me a bit about that experience and how it shaped your career path?
Yes. I did very poorly in high school. I didn't have anybody in my family who went to college, and I didn't see the benefit of an education. So two weeks after I graduated, I went to boot camp with the Marine Corps. I spent seven years in the Marines, where I got to travel a lot and go to different parts of the world. I saw how much a lack of an education could hurt an entire group of people. I also saw how a little bit of an education could give someone more opportunities than they ever had. I also happened to have really good mentors while I was in the Marines who pushed me to learn more than what was required. It instilled this hunger for knowledge that's really helped me be successful as a student and ultimately lead to me being able to start at community college and transfer to Stanford to finish my undergraduate degree. It’s also what makes me really enjoy JPL, because it's that same type of mentality here. There are a lot of really cool things going on here, but it's not like we just sit back and watch the cool stuff happen. We're doing the stuff no one has done before, and we’re continuing to learn and iterate.
It’s often challenging for veterans to take that next step after they return from their service. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
It's really difficult when you're first leaving the service because you've been surrounded by a lot of like-minded people in the sense that you have a mission and you're executing that mission to the best of your team's ability. I didn't struggle with this because I happened to go to a community college that had a great veteran population, but some friends of mine who went to different schools felt like there wasn't that camaraderie. I think that's the biggest thing that hinders us when we come out. We're used to that sense of camaraderie and then we go to a place where that's not there, and it leaves you feeling alone.
Some of the situations that you face and see while you're deployed in the military are not what the normal 18-,19-, 20-year-old sees, so it makes it hard to talk to others. I had a lot of trouble with that. I was very antisocial when I first came out of the service, so I did a lot of counseling through [Veterans Affairs]. My wife has been a huge help and has been very patient with me working through it. [It was also helpful] having a good group of friends who are veterans, who I got together and studied with. I think the biggest thing you can do is try to find other veterans or just people you can have in your corner because it does get difficult.
Did you pick the community college you went to because it had a large veteran population?
No. When I first got out, I wasn't sure I was going to go to college. I figured I would take one or two classes [at a community college] and see how it went. My wife went to get information and sign me up and told me there's this whole veterans resource center and that I should go meet this guy Jordan. The first time I went, I was just super uncomfortable. I was there for five or 10 minutes, and I left. I think I made it halfway through the semester and the classes started to get really difficult. So, I finally went back and met Jordan and the community there and right away got involved. I ended up becoming the vice president of our student veterans organization during my time there. But I didn't choose the school because they have a good veteran population. The location and timing just worked out really well.
What made you decide that you wanted to study STEM?
Growing up, I always got in trouble for tinkering. I grew up on a tiny farm. We didn't have any money, but we always had broken stuff lying around. So I would take stuff apart and try to put it together with other things. And then I've always been interested in space and military aircraft. I worked on military aircraft for part of my career. I've just always had that desire to poke my head into things and figure out how they work and take things apart. So STEM kind of seemed like the right thing to get into. It gives me an ability to dig into math and physics, which I enjoy, but also poke around with the creative side of things.
When you started at community college and took those first couple courses, were they STEM-related?
Since I'd been out of school for so long, I had to take a test to see where I would start. I started in trigonometry, which is low on the totem pole for engineering majors, but I had an amazing trig professor, Professor Marquez. He walked into this trig-prep class and said, “Don't think of trig as a subject you have to learn in math, think of it as a superpower.” He taught us to think, not to repeat. So later on, it made other classes much easier.
This is your second internship at JPL, and before that, you were here as part of the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars, or NCAS, workshop. Can you talk a little bit about that and why you've continued to come back to JPL?
I have a friend, Dave, who's also here [as an intern]. He was at the community college I went to. He told me how he was coming to JPL for this program called NCAS. I went online and signed up for it. I did the online class and got invited to come to JPL [for the NCAS onsite workshop]. During the workshop, I fell in love with everything that we got exposed to: the missions that NASA was doing and what JPL was working on. We had guest speakers come in and interns talk about their experiences at JPL. It wasn't necessarily that I thought, that’s the job I want to do. It was, those are the people who I want to work with.
After that program, I stayed in contact with my mentor, Otto Polanco. He offered me an opportunity to come to JPL that following summer. I thought, I'll probably go there to do all the stuff that he doesn't want to do, like Excel sheets and trade studies. But then, I showed up, and I was basically handed the keys to the Ferrari and told to go drive. It was the first time with a work experience, especially an internship, where I came in and it was like, “Here's an engineering problem, go figure it out.” I loved it.
I was also invited that summer to be a student aid for NCAS at JPL, so I got to be behind the scenes and see all of the work that the JPL Education Office puts into the program. They do a fantastic job and it makes it that much more special for all the students.
What's been the most unique JPL or NASA experience you've had during your time here?
The most unique is being surrounded by people whose work you're reading [in school] and who are guiding what industry is doing – but they're approachable. Like yesterday, I sat with Adam Steltzner, who lead the entry, descent and landing for the Mars rover Curiosity. I had read his book, and last summer, I ran into him and briefly introduced myself and asked if he wanted to meet. He met me for coffee, and then he met me again this year and we got to catch up.
For me, a big thing that I'm considering is the work-life balance because I have a wife and two children. At JPL, you have that opportunity to do really amazing things and work with amazing people and get to be a husband and a father. And you don't have to sacrifice that to do something amazing. That's been unique to me – to find a place that has the culture fit that I've been looking for.
How do you feel you're contributing overall to NASA/JPL missions and science?
Hopefully, the project that I’m working on will help ensure success for the next space-based telescope. I feel as though I get to be part of the future, the next generation of space explorers and what we're going to find out there.
What's your ultimate career goal?
To be an NCAS mentor. That would mean I'd have to be a full-time JPL employee in a position where I'd be able to dedicate some of my time to support the next group of NCAS students, who are going to become interns and then come to JPL full time.
Last question: If you could go anywhere in space, where would you go and what would you do there?
Ooh, if I could go anywhere in space? I would want to go to the farthest point in space from Earth and look back to realize how insignificant it is and how much I take for granted.
Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.