A master's student and JPL intern at 19, Natalie Deo has her sights set on a career at the Laboratory, and she's out to prove it's never too early to pursue your dreams.
To hear Natalie Deo explain why she wanted to leave high school at the age of 14 and go straight into higher education is to hear it from the perspective of a precocious teenager wise beyond her years – and her peers.
“I was walking to first period in high school and I saw a couple making out and I was like, ‘I’m getting out of here. I don’t want to see that,’” Deo, now 19 and a summer intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, deadpans.
Not that she hadn’t thought about fast-tracking it out of high school before that moment, of course. Deo, who grew up in Downey, California, was already familiar with the highly selective Early Entrance Program, or EEP, at Cal State University, Los Angeles that puts gifted students on an accelerated path toward college admission, and she had taken the ACT while in eighth grade. After finishing ninth grade, she was one of a handful of high-school students selected to start her undergraduate studies in electrical engineering at Cal State L.A.
“I was tired of being around people who weren’t as motivated. People were begging me to do their homework or trying to pay me to write their essays,” she says. “While that wasn’t the case with all my peers and some were even really supportive, it was cool to go to college and be around more people who are like-minded.”
Now, Deo is pursuing her master's degree in astronautical engineering at USC while interning at JPL with the team developing the Europa Clipper spacecraft. These days, one could say Deo is constantly surrounded by like-minded folks.
“USC is near home and near JPL, and JPL has been my dream since I knew I wanted to work in space,” Deo says.
The Early Years
Deo first realized she “really, really loved space” at 13 after winning a telescope from a raffle at the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey, and found herself looking up at the Moon every night. Shortly after, she started volunteering at the space center every weekend, helping host field trips and robotics labs for young visiting students (something she still does to this day).
During this time, Deo was introduced to a middle-school STEM engineering class when she was in seventh grade.
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“My teacher reached out to me and said, ‘You might enjoy it,’ and I thought, ‘Well, it’s either this or band,’” she says.
Deo tried the class, which introduced basic engineering concepts the first year revolving around design, modeling, and the engineering process. The second year focused on automation and robotics, and put students’ skills to the test in regional competitions.
“Before I realized it, I was spending every day after school working in robotics,” she says.
By the time she entered high school, nothing fascinated her more.
“High school was pretty easy for me and what we were learning didn't intrigue me as much as engineering,” Deo says.
Once Deo decided to formally enter EEP, she had to participate in a rigorous summer academy where students are evaluated by college admissions staff on whether they’re performing at a college level. In Cal State L.A.’s program, approximately 500 to 1,000 students apply each year and only about 20 to 30 students are admitted.
Deo was on a road trip with her mother and grandmother when she got the acceptance call.
“I was screaming, and my mom had to pull over because she was screaming,” Deo says. “My brother and dad were at home, and I called them and they were screaming on the phone. There was a lot of screaming.”
Looking back on her time in the summer academy, Deo marvels at the odds she overcame to gain admission.
“I didn’t realize it during that summer, but I was not like most students there whose parents had PhDs and were established in their fields,” she says. “I had parents who immigrated from Fiji. My mom came [to the U.S.] at 8 and my dad came at 22 without a college education. I grew up in a poor area compared to a lot of these students, and I didn’t have the resources to prepare for college that a lot of other students did. I also have Type 1 diabetes. It was special to me [to be accepted into the program] because here was this girl facing adversities of every kind – and she made it.”
While the decision to leave high school was an easy one, arriving at college left Deo grappling with imposter syndrome.
“The first year, I just took general education classes with my cohort [of EEPs] who help you transition, and I was just having fun with them,” Deo says. “Then it kicked in. I had no idea how college worked – my brother was still a senior in high school at the time. I was seeing all these people who were so smart and who came from very affluent backgrounds and who were into literature and stuff like that. I was never really into that. People just knew things I didn’t know and I thought, ‘Should I know that? Do I belong here?’”
Deo credits therapy, talking to friends, and turning to family as ways she coped with getting through those challenging early months. She also still stayed in touch with her childhood friends and took in the high-school experience while in college.
“I still went to prom, football games, and hung out with my friends all the time,” she says. “I was able to have the best of both worlds.”
JPL Internship, Mentorship, and Beyond
At JPL, whispers of a 19-year-old summer intern getting her master’s haven’t fazed Deo in the slightest.
“I hosted an intern party the other week, and everyone coming in was like, ‘Are you the one who’s 19 and in grad school?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s me, but I’m also Natalie and I have a Lego collection,’ she says with a laugh.
Deo’s intern responsibilities go beyond her years, of course. So far this summer, she’s spent it working on validating and verifying commands being sent to Europa Clipper’s computer system, ensuring the spacecraft’s instruments respond correctly to commands.
While she admits she still struggles with imposter syndrome in the workplace, she’s becoming more and more comfortable as the months go by and she grows closer to her fellow interns.
“The ratio of women to men is much greater here than in my previous internships,” she says. “I see more of myself in the people around me, and that helps me be able to interact with other interns and have them as a support group. I’m hanging out with them every weekend, and I’ve made lifelong friends already.”
Deo is also part of JPL’s Employee Resource Group, or ERG, mentorship program, which paired her up with a secondary mentor – one who supports a mentee outside of the mentorship their manager provides – through JPL's Advisory Council for Women, or ACW.
“This type of mentorship is based on career and academic advice, and to help interns develop their soft skills,” explains Alona Dontsova, who spearheads the program for Human Resources at JPL. “If the manager is concentrating on developing technical skills and how to manage projects, the ERG mentors are helping with networking, looking at their resume, listening to their pitches, or giving them more professional development advice. The ERG mentor is also more focused on teaching interns about the JPL culture.”
Deo’s secondary mentor, Lynn Boyden, is “very glad that the planets aligned that way” for the two of them to be paired up, and is a firm believer that mentoring is a two-way street.
“Learning goes in both directions … and one of the ways we do that is by sharing knowledge across these divides,” she says. “Sometimes there are situations that are beyond an intern’s ability to navigate the institutional practices, and this is where having a mentor with deeper experience in the world of business can be helpful. Also, one of the primary functions of an internship is to help an intern build a professional network, and having another designated person at JPL can only help them extend that network.”
For Deo’s part, she’s thrilled to have someone she can be candid with.
“I can have conversations about JPL that might be intimidating to ask my group supervisor,” she says. “Like, ‘How do I say please hire me without saying please hire me?’”
Deo isn’t shy about her next set of goals, which include being hired through JPL's academic part-time program while she completes her master’s. And while the virtual internship experience has been a challenge for her, “I really enjoy hands-on work,” she says. Deo has felt the rewards of her internship and mentorship every day.
“Honestly, everything has been rewarding: the people, the experiences, and everything I’ve learned,” she says. “I’m motivated by passion and doing what I love, and I’m doing what I love.”
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.