When Lean Teodoro was growing up on the remote island of Saipan in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, her dream of one day working for NASA always seemed a bit far-fetched to those around her. Now, a geophysics student on the premed track at the University of Hawaii and a summer 2018 intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Teodoro is making her dream a reality. This summer, she took a short break from her internship searching for asteroids with NASA’s NEOWISE team to tell us about her career journey so far, what inspired her to study STEM and how she hopes to play a role in human space exploration of the future.
What are you working on at JPL?
I work with the NEOWISE team, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. My focus is on near-Earth asteroids. I do a lot of image analysis and processing. Not all of the time do asteroids get detected through our automated system, so my job is to look at archives to find previously undetected asteroids.
What is a near-Earth object and how do you look for them?
Near-Earth objects are objects [such as asteroids and comets] that are very near to Earth's orbit. There are other asteroids that are located roughly between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, but my focus is on those that are closer to Earth. The way that we detect them is we have this [space telescope called NEOWISE] that surveys the sky in two wavelengths. It senses the heat of asteroids. So I look at images from NEOWISE and, if I see a red dot that is bright, then that's usually an asteroid. But I go through several search techniques to see if the signal-to-noise ratio is good. So there are several processes that work.
What is the ultimate goal of the project?
My ultimate goal is to try to increase the number of known near-Earth objects so that, in the future, we can get more precise measurements for their positions and movements -- just in case they pose a risk to Earth.
What's an average day like for you?
I go through, I'd say, hundreds of images per day. I also took part in a side project where I had to get the measurements of an asteroid that was observed 39 years before it was officially discovered. We looked at this astronomical plate from the 1950s. You can see a very small arrow pointing to an asteroid. Positions for the asteroid hadn’t been discovered yet, so my job was also to find those. It had a lot to do with coding and I had very little experience with coding, so it was nice.
What other skills have you been able to pick up at JPL?
My major is geophysics, so I had little knowledge about astronomy. My whole research team exposed me to an exciting world of astronomy, so that was really nice. They were very encouraging. I've learned so much more about astronomy this summer than I did throughout my whole undergrad career. I mean, there is some connection between geophysics and astronomy, in a way, but this summer, I really learned so much.
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You grew up on the remote island of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands. How did you get exposed to STEM and what got interested in pursuing it as a career?
When I was young, my dad would always make us go fly kites at night on the beach. There was this one night where I was just looking at the Moon. I was like, "Oh my god, I really want to learn more about astronomy.” I think since then, I've been interested in STEM. But when you're coming from a really small island, you feel very limited. So I didn't have that strong foundation in STEM. And that's the reason why I wanted to move off the island -- because I knew that I couldn't get the opportunities if I stayed. That's the reason I moved to the University of Hawaii. They have a strong geology and geophysics program, and it's a great research university. Since I started there, I've been doing research related to NASA -- like the NASA Hawaii Space Grant Consortium. I feel like if I didn't move to the University of Hawaii, I wouldn't be where I am today, interning at JPL.
So you moved from one island to another?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I couldn't leave the island vibe, I guess. I think it's just a little closer to home. I feel more at home when I'm in Hawaii. Not only that, but also they have a great program, so that was a plus, too. And they have close affiliations with NASA, so that was really great, because my goal was to work for NASA.
Was it a challenge to move away from the island where you grew up?
It was definitely a challenge leaving family and friends behind. I was there on my own. The reason why I chose the University of Hawaii is because of their program. I had a really hard time choosing my major because I was interested in health, but I was interested in geology as well. I'm doing premed as well [as geology and geophysics]. I'm really interested in how humans or organisms can adapt to extreme environments and in learning about geology – for example on Mars – and health, and seeing how we can combine those two fields to contribute to future human space exploration.
What do your family and people back home think of your career path?
It's so funny because I remember, in middle school, I would always tell my friends and family how I wanted to work for NASA, and they would laugh about it because I don't think anyone back home has ever done something big like that. Having them see me working here -- it just kind of opened their eyes, like, “Wow, it's possible,” you know? Most of the time, people back home just stay for financial reasons. It was really expensive moving to Hawaii. But I really wanted to do it. So here I am, and I'm so happy.
Did you know that we have a group of student teachers from the Northern Mariana Islands that has come to NASA’s MUREP Educator Institute at JPL the past couple summers?
Yeah! So three weeks ago, I was walking to my office, and I saw a few friends from back home. I was like, “Oh my god, what are you guys doing here?” We all went to the same high school and everything! They were telling me about that whole program. I was like, “Oh my god, I feel so happy. That's so great.” The chances -- it was mind-blowing. I'm so happy for them. I'm really excited for the future of Saipan and the whole Northern Mariana Islands.
What's the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience you've had so far?
Of all the internships I've had in the past, JPL is really unique because everyone is just so passionate about the work that they do, so it really rubs off on you. Not only that, but also the intern community here is just amazing. And not only the interns, but also my mentors and the other scientists and engineers I've met. I've made so many friends throughout my summer here from all over the nation and all over the world, which is nice because I'm from this small island, and it just makes me realize how big the world is.
I feel like interning at JPL builds a foundation for me. And with my mentors here at JPL and in Hawaii, I do feel more confident in being a minority and a woman in STEM. I feel more driven to be successful and to inspire people from back home to go and pursue what they want to do. Don't let the confinements of your environment stop you from what you want to do.
What’s your ultimate career goal?
My ultimate goal is to try and contribute to future human space exploration. That's what I really want to do. I'm still trying to figure out how I can pave my path by combining health and geosciences. We'll see how it goes.
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.