When Yohn Ellis got his chance to intern at NASA, he wasn't about to let it slip away, pandemic or not. Growing up and going to school in Houston, Texas, the home of NASA's Johnson Space Center, Ellis has long been a superfan of the agency. So when he was offered an internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, he jumped at the chance. That was before all but a handful of JPL's essential employees were required to switch to remote work. So instead of a hands-on role, Ellis got first-hand experience in how the laboratory overcomes challenges. Returning intern Evan Kramer caught up with Ellis, a grad student studying electrical engineering at Prairie View A&M University, to learn more about his remote internship this past summer, researching how miniature devices could make their way into spacecraft of the future. Ellis talks about how he made the most of the experience while sharing a full house with his family, what it meant to be part of the JPL community, and how he hopes to pay it all forward.
What are you working on at JPL?
I am working with the radar technology team, doing research into nanotechnology [a field of study looking at miniaturized (nanoscale) materials and devices]. When my internship first started, I researched how nanotech is being used in medicine, health, business, and all these other fields. Then, I started to focus on doing simulations of nanoelectronics. I'm working on gaining new insight into nanotechnology to see how we can utilize it for future projects at JPL.
Tell me a bit more about the simulations you're doing. How might your work be applied to JPL missions and science in the future?
On nanoHUB.org, there are hundreds of tools you can use to simulate different aspects of nanotechnology and nanoelectronics. So I've looked into a lot of these tools. I've had to stick to one of the more user-friendly tools, because I honestly haven't had a lot of exposure to nanotech before. So this internship has been a great learning experience for me. Right now, I'm utilizing a simulation of a nano-transistor. So I'm applying different characteristics and settings to generate different effects to see if there are benefits to making our transistors smaller so we could fit more of them into an integrated circuit.
At the core of nanotech, you want to make things smaller and smaller. If we can make spacecraft and spacecraft instruments smaller, then we can do more science while staying within our size, mass, and power constraints. It's not always clear what the benefits of nanotechnology will be until you start experimenting. With this field, there's a lot of information that we can learn through simulations and modeling because we don't yet know about the behaviors of these new materials. That is why it's beneficial to do these simulations and this research.
What is your average day like?
Before the COVID pandemic hit, my project was going to be at JPL, doing hands-on research. But after [most JPL employees went on mandatory telework] I was fortunate enough to keep my internship and transition to a virtual experience, where I could do some research at home using the simulation software.
My average day is very interesting, working from home around the rest of my family. There are a lot of personalities going on. So it might be that the TV is on downstairs or the dog is barking or my brothers are playing a game or my dad is cooking.
But as far as what I have going on, I start my day around 8 or 9 a.m. and work until about 7 p.m. I check in to some of the virtual webinars. There are a lot of great webinars going on for interns about the cool projects people are working on at JPL. I'm also conducting research, running simulations, reading articles, and sharing what I find out with my mentors, Mohammad Ashtijou and Eric Perez. I produce presentations pretty much weekly, if not biweekly, to convey what I've learned, and then my mentors guide me and steer me in the proper direction.
So my days are pretty unique. Working from home has definitely been an adjustment, but there are some benefits to working from home, such as not having to pay as much for gas or commute anywhere. You just wake up and get yourself started for the day. I will say there are some disadvantages, like not being able to actually put your hands on the stuff you're researching, but there's some benefit to running the simulations instead.
What has the experience of a virtual internship been like?
It's a bit of an adjustment, because I'm a very hands-on person. I like going out there and being involved, especially in the workplace and networking. But there is a way to network virtually. I've met some very interesting people and have had a chance to share some of who I am with them, to kind of put myself out there. I even created a virtual newsletter. Every time I network with someone new, I send them my newsletter to bridge that networking gap and paint a picture of who I am outside of the work that I do. I enjoy getting to share that with everyone, and I get a lot of good feedback from it.
Being a virtual intern is something that I'd see myself doing again. I've loved the virtual experience. It's been great. With everything being virtual, I feel like everyone has a little bit more time to interact with you. They're more likely to take that meeting and just talk to you about how your day is going and share how things are going at home for them, too.
So the virtual experience was definitely something that I'll never forget, and I'm super appreciative of it. There was one point when JPL thought they would have to postpone the internship. With me being a full-time grad student, I desperately wanted to have this experience, because I plan to continue toward a Ph.D. Not everyone gets to say they interned with NASA.
I can honestly say that this internship, even though it's virtual, has by far been the most beneficial from an exposure standpoint. The stuff that's being done at NASA-JPL is out of this world. I'm pretty sure a lot of people use that type of verbiage when they talk about NASA, but it really is amazing some of the stuff that I've been exposed to – from the missions that are going on to some of the resources that I have had access to as an intern to develop my skills and network.
What is the most uniquely JPL or NASA experience you've had so far?
Learning about Perseverance, the Mars rover that launched this summer, and hearing first-hand about how it was built, how it's going to collect soil samples, and look into biosignatures – you would think it's science fiction. To me, it's so exciting, because as a youth, I dreamed about working at NASA, and now I'm doing it.
I've also felt a real connection to the culture at JPL. I've felt supported and comforted by JPL as an African-American man during these hardships we've been going through. It's true that JPL is making a lot of advancements in science and space, but I think it's uniquely JPL that there are people there who truly care about you as an individual. They see you, and they hear you, and they want to help you develop as a person as well as an engineer or professional. I really felt as if I was cared for as an individual this summer, and that spoke a lot to me.
I fully agree. I haven't had the life experiences that you've had, but that is certainly something that I feel as well. This is my third internship at JPL, and all the mentors that I've had have really expressed that you're not just here to contribute your labor for 10 weeks. You're here to develop as a person. And they want to help you develop.
Where do you go to school and what are you studying?
I'm wrapping up my Master's in electrical engineering at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college and university [HBCU] in Houston, Texas. My thesis is about machine learning and artificial intelligence. I am utilizing algorithms that do regression analysis to predict ground-water levels throughout the state of Texas. I was recruited to do that research through a program at my university called CREDIT [Center of excellence in Research and Education for big military Data inTelligence.] When I graduated from undergrad and expressed that I wanted to continue to graduate school for my Master's degree, CREDIT extended the opportunity for me to join the study as a graduate research assistant. So I've been doing that for about two years now, and I'm getting ready to transition to a Ph.D. level.
What brought you to JPL for this internship?
I vividly remember being infatuated with NASA as a youth, so much so that my parents ordered me a pamphlet from Space Center Houston with posters and stickers explaining all of the cool things happening across NASA. I will never forget when I was able to visit the center during spring break in 2009. It was by far the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed as a youth.
As life goes on, you don't think as much about your childhood dreams, but every time I saw an opportunity at NASA I applied. When I saw that JPL was looking to take on interns, I was just wrapping up my Master's, and I figured, "Let me give it another shot." I spent a lot of time working on my application, making sure it looked as good as possible. Who would've thought that months later, I would've been afforded the opportunity?
What's your ultimate career goal?
My goal is to develop my career enough so that I can share my experience and passion with others in my community and communities similar to the one I grew up in. I also want to share how STEM benefits society and how a career in STEM is attainable. A lot of times, people say, "I don't like math," or, "I don't like science." Quite frankly, I see myself as someone who didn't like those subjects much either. But I knew that I wanted to work for NASA one day or work in the field of engineering, so I had to get comfortable with those subjects. So my ultimate goal is to know that my career is set so that I can give back to communities where there are people who might be unsure of what they are capable of. I would also like to give kudos to JPL, because I see that they have a lot of involvement with local communities, doing educational outreach.
I fully agree. I've been giving talks to high-school students about the Perseverance Mars rover, and it is the most rewarding thing to see younger students who don't really know what they want to do in the future get excited [about STEM]. Now they're interested, and you can give them the tools to go out and maybe pursue it.
Most definitely. And that's how you pour into the next person so that they can pour into the next person.
How do you feel you're contributing to NASA-JPL missions and science?
I remember early on in my JPL internship, in one of the webinars, they expressed how this experience is meant to ultimately give you exposure but also inspire you to develop yourself. I believe that I'm contributing in that way by being someone who is driven, motivated, and also willing to take those chances to look deeper than the basic assignment.
When you're not in school or interning, how do you like to spend your time?
I'm having a good time with my family. My brothers and I play board games together. I work out sometimes. For the most part, I've been spending time with the family, playing a video game in my free time, shopping online a little bit, and connecting with my frat brothers. I've done a lot of virtual events for people in the community, talking about COVID safety and stressing the importance of voting, with the elections coming up.
I also find myself doing a lot of internal development. So that would be reading a little bit more for pleasure, and also doing some assessments of my goals and budgeting. I like to look at this pandemic as a sort of "halftime" when I can work on some things for me to better develop myself.
My last question is a fun one: If you could have a spacecraft built to study anything you want, what would it be?
I'd like to study how to sustain or better germinate resources on Earth. If we can find a way to learn what's going on globally on a more intimate scale, I believe that would help us utilize our planet's resources more effectively – resources that could pertain to producing more crops for food, for example.
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
Kim Orr contributed to this story.
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.