It only takes minutes into a conversation with Farah Alibay about her job at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to realize there's nowhere else she'd rather be. An engineer working on the systems that NASA's next Mars rover will use to maneuver around a world millions of miles away, Alibay got her start at JPL as an intern. In the six years since being hired at the Laboratory, she's worked on several projects destined for Mars and even had a couple of her own interns. Returning intern Evan Kramer caught up with Alibay to learn more about her current role with the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, how her internships helped pave her path to JPL and how she hopes interns see the same "beauty" in the work that she does.
What do you do at JPL?
I’m a systems engineer. I have two jobs on the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission right now. One is the systems engineer for the rover's attitude positioning and pointing. It's my job to make sure that once it's on the surface of Mars, the rover knows where it's pointed, and as it's moving, it can update its position and inform other systems of where it is. So we use things like a gyroscope and imagery to figure out where the rover is pointed and where it's gone as it's traveling.
My other job is helping out with testing the mast [sometimes called the "head"] on the rover. I help make sure that all of the commands and movements are well understood and well tested so that once the rover gets to Mars, we know that the procedures to deploy the mast and operate all of the instruments are going to work properly.
This is probably a tough question to answer, but what is an average day like for you?
Right now, I spend a lot of time testing – either developing procedures, executing procedures in the test bed or reviewing data from the procedures to make sure we're testing all of our capabilities. We start off from requirements of what we think we should be able to do, and then we write our procedures to test out those requirements. We test them out with software, and then we come to the test bed to execute them on hardware. Things usually go wrong, so we'll repeat the procedures a few times. Eventually, once we think we've had a successful run, we have a review.
Most of my testing is on the mobility side. However, it hasn't really started in earnest yet since we're waiting for the rover's "Earth twin" [the engineering model] to be built. Once that happens, later this summer, I will be spending a good chunk of my time in the Mars Yard [a simulated Mars environment at JPL], driving the rover around and actually using real data to figure out whether the software is behaving properly.
What's the ultimate goal of your work at JPL?
All the work that I do right now is in support of the Perseverance rover mission. On the mobility team, we work on essential functions that are going to be used as the rover drives around on Mars.
One of the really neat things about Perseverance is that it can do autonomous driving. So the rover is able to drive up to 200 meters on its own, without us providing any directional information about the terrain. Working on this new ability has been the bulk of testing we're doing on the mobility team. But this new capability should speed up a lot of the driving that we do on Mars. Once we get smart in planning rover movements, we'll be able to plan a day's worth of activity and then tell the rover, "Just keep going until you're done."
You came to JPL as an intern. What was that experience like and how did it shape what you're doing now?
I spent two summers as an intern at JPL during my Ph.D. The first one was in 2012, which was the summer that the Curiosity Mars rover landed. That was a pretty incredible experience. As someone who had only spent one summer at NASA before, seeing the excitement around landing a spacecraft on Mars, well, I think it's hard not to fall in love with JPL when you see that happen. During that summer, I worked on the early days of the A-Team [JPL's mission-concept study team], where I was helping out with some of the mission studies that were going on.
My second summer, I worked in the Mars Program Office, looking at a mission concept to return samples from Mars. I was helping define requirements and look at some of the trade studies. We were specifically looking at designs for orbiters that could bring back samples from Mars. A lot of that fed into my graduate research. It's pretty cool to be able to say that I applied my research and research tools to real problems to help JPL's Mars sample return studies.
What brought you to JPL for your internship? Was working at JPL always a dream for you?
Yeah, working at NASA was always a dream, but going into my Ph.D., I became more and more interested in robotics and planetary exploration. I have a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, but I also have a minor in planetary science. There are very few places on Earth that really put those two together besides JPL, and it's the only place that has successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars. So, given my passions and my interests, JPL emerged at the top of my list very, very quickly. Once I spent time here, I realized that I fit in. My work goals and my aspirations fit into what people were already doing here.
What moments or memories from your internships stand out the most?
The Curiosity landing was definitely one of the highlights of my first internship.
Another one of the highlights is that JPL takes the work that interns do really seriously. I was initially surprised by that, and I think that's true of every intern I've met. Interns do real work that contributes to missions or research. I remember, for example, presenting some of my work to my mentor, who was super-excited about some of the results I was getting. For me, that was quite humbling, because I saw my research actually helping a real mission. I think I'll always remember that.
How do you think your internship shaped your career path and led to what you're doing now?
My internships definitely opened a lot of doors for me. In particular, during my second internship, I also participated in the Planetary Science Summer School at JPL. Throughout the summer, we met with experts in planetary science to develop a mission concept, and then we came together as a team to design the spacecraft in one week! It was an intense week but also an extremely satisfying one. The highlight was being able to present our work to some of the leading engineers and scientists at JPL. We got grilled, and they found a whole lot of holes in our design, but I learned so much from it. How often do you get to have your work reviewed by experts in the field?
Through these experiences, I made a lot of connections and found mentors who I could reach out to. Since I knew JPL is where I wanted to be, I took it upon myself to knock on every single door and make my case as to why JPL should hire me. I actually never interviewed, because by then, they decided that I had done my own interviews!
My internships and the summer school also gave me an idea of what I wanted to do and what I didn't want to do. So I was a step ahead of other applicants. I always tell interns who come to JPL that if they're not particularly liking their work in the first few weeks, they should take the opportunity to go out and explore what else JPL has to offer. I believe that there's a place for everyone here.
Have you had your own interns before?
I had interns my first two summers working at JPL. Two of my interns are now also full-time employees, and I always remind them that they were my interns when I see them! I also have an intern this summer who I'm extremely excited to work with, as she'll be helping us prepare some of the tools we'll need for operating the Perseverance rover on Mars.
What is your mentorship style with interns?
My goal for interns is mostly for them to learn something new and discover JPL, so I usually let my interns drive in terms of what they want to achieve. Normally, I sit down with them at the start of summer and define a task, because we want them to be doing relevant work. But I encouraged them to take time off from what they're doing and explore JPL, attend events that we have organized for interns and decide whether this is a place for them or not.
It's kind of a dual mentorship. I mentor them in terms of doing their work, but also mentor them in terms of helping them evolve as students and as early career engineers.
What do you hope they take away from their experience?
I hope they take advantage of this unique place and that they fall in love with it the way I did. Mostly, though, I'm hoping they discover whether this is a place for them or not. Whatever it is, I want them to be able to find their passion.
What would be your advice for those looking to intern or work at JPL one day?
I think the way into JPL, or whatever career that you're going to end up in, is to be 100% into what you're doing. If you're in school, studying aerospace engineering or mechanical engineering, do hands-on projects. The way I found opportunities was through the Planetary Science Summer School and the Caltech Space Challenge, which were workshops. I also did something called RASC-AL, which is a different workshop from the National Institute of Aerospace. Do all of those extracurricular things that apply your skills and develop them.
If you have the opportunity to attend talks, or if your advisor gives you extra work that requires you to reach out to potential mentors, take the time to do it.
My other piece of advice is to knock on doors and talk to people who do something in your field that you're interested in. Don't be shy, and don't wait for opportunities to come to you. Especially if you're already at JPL, or if you have mentors that are. Leverage that network.
Last question: If you could play any role in NASA's mission to send humans back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars, what would it be?
I chose to come to JPL because I like working on robotic missions. However, a lot of these robotic missions are precursors to crewed lunar and Mars missions. So I see our role here as building up our understanding of Mars and the Moon [to pave the way for future human missions].
I've worked on different Mars missions, and every one has found unexpected results. We're learning new things about the environment, the soil and the atmosphere with every mission. So I already feel like my work is contributing to that. And especially with the Perseverance rover mission, one of its main intentions is to pave the way for eventually sending humans to Mars.
Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: jpl.nasa.gov/intern
Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found at: jpl.jobs
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.