Alexis Drake is a communications major who interned with the Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the summer of 2014.

Ciara Lynton poses with her summer project

Ciara Lynton at JPL

Ciara Lynton is no stranger to the limelight. The 19-year-old electrical engineering major has been featured in a number of magazines for her academic and leadership accomplishments. So it was no surprise that she soared, arms first, into her internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. With a team of three other interns, Lynton is working with a highly innovative and cutting-edge contraption: the BioSleeve.

"The BioSleeve is a gesture-based interface that will be used to translate muscle movement and activity into robot control," Lynton said. "We want to use the BioSleeve to be able to control robots and prosthetic limbs." Her team is hopeful that the apparatus will be used by astronauts in the near future. As of now, Lynton is making significant strides in assisting the development of the innovative mechanism, working on system integration and hardware design. 

Lynton will soon start her junior year at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Although a number of factors lead her into the electrical engineering field, Lynton says her love of electronics and computers was the driving force. "And I get to make a difference," she said.

Lynton's inquisitive nature was unveiled at the tender age of six when she disassembled her first computer -- unbeknownst to her mother. "Growing up, I would always play 'Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego' and 'Reader Rabbit,' so I really wanted to know the makeup of the computer and how it operated," said Lynton, who was born and raised in Baltimore. She reassembled the computer after her careful assessment, and it still worked. "My mom was not the happiest, but that's when she knew," said Lynton of her tech-savvy capabilities.

Lynton is a recipient of NASA's Minority University Research and Education Program fellowship, which provides academic stipends and internships to underrepresented students completing undergraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in an effort to diversify the STEM workforce. "The most challenging obstacle I had to face was getting the scholarship because there was a lot of competition," said Lynton. Her effort came to avail when she received an email from her mentor, Christopher Assad, asking if she would like to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime internship opportunity with JPL's Mobility and Robotic Systems group. "I really like NASA and robotics, so I was like, 'Yea!'" she said.

This isn't Lynton's first time venturing into unknown terrains. Last summer, she participated in a cyber-security internship offered through her school's research lab. And she has her sights set on exploring even more places her major might take her. "I try to do a different [internship] each year -- get as much exposure as I can before I have to lock down a specific interest for graduate school," she said.

For now, the summer intern is thoroughly enjoying her experience at JPL, "Working with the BioSleeve is really rewarding, plus everybody here is really friendly and the environment is very laid back."

TAGS: Women in STEM, Electrical Engineering, BioSleeve, Robotics, Morgan State University, Women in STEM, Black History Month

  • Alexis Drake

Not many interns get the opportunity to study one of humanity's biggest questions: How did life emerge? But mechanical engineering major Jessica Nuñez is having the experience of a lifetime in search of the answer. Nuñez is interning this summer in the Planetary Sciences Section at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

As part of a NASA Astrobiology Institute project led by Isik Kanik, Nuñez constructs and analyzes simulated hydrothermal vents, chimney-like structures that are hypothesized to have been the birthing grounds for the emergence of life. On a daily basis, she examines the chimneys, which she constructs herself through a chemical process, and analyzes them with one of her favorite tools on lab: an electron microscope. "It gets the coolest pictures," she said. "It's awesome to be exposed to technology here at JPL that I wouldn't be exposed to anywhere else." Nuñez observes the chimney's composition to see how its structure changes over periods of time. Along with her cohorts, she is hoping to see a chemical reaction similar to the one that scientists believe produced life on Earth.

Working closely with her mentors, Mike Russell and Laurie Barge, Nuñez is eager to lend a helping hand in research that could answer such an important question. "There are a bunch of different pieces to this big puzzle to see how life could have surfaced," she said.

While Nuñez's ultimate career goal is to work in the engineering field, she is excited about the new challenges and experiences an internship in planetary sciences might offer. "It was kind of intimidating at first, but at the same time I was excited about all the possibilities JPL has and all there is to learn," she said. "I would like to get exposed to as much as possible, so it's exciting for me to get my foot in the door here and see what work I can do in the future."

This fall, the 22-year-old West Covina native is bidding adieu to Citrus Community College in order to sail into new terrains at the University of California, Berkeley. Nuñez believes she will have an edge as she enters a new academic chapter. "In a sense, I think this internship is preparing me to transfer, because I am learning something new every day, so it's nice," she said.

Whether she is taking a run in the neighboring mountains, or investigating the deeply webbed quest of life's emergence, Nuñez is thoroughly enjoying her internship experience. And like many scientists and engineers who venture to JPL, she is already planning for her future endeavors. "I would love to continue working here, maybe even in different areas within JPL or other NASA laboratories," she said.

In the near future, she hopes to participate in developing missions to visit Europa and Enceladus, the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, widely regarded as the next frontiers in the search for life beyond Earth.

Says Nuñez, "I've never been into space or exposed to it, but now that I have, I love it."

TAGS: Women in STEM, Mechanical Engineering, Astrobiology, Internships & Fellowships, Citrus Community College, University of California, Berkeley, Hispanic Heritage Month, Women at NASA

  • Alexis Drake

Intern orientation summer 2014

In anticipation of upcoming launches, mission proposals and new discoveries, more than 750 students arrived this summer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for internships and research opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The number is a record for JPL, which offers research opportunities to hundreds of students, ranging from high school to faculty, each summer and throughout the year.

Hailing from 16 countries and representing more than 40 majors, students filled the lab, hungry for knowledge, groundbreaking discoveries and an experience of a lifetime. Over the course of the summer, interns participate in projects like the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2, designed to study carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere, and the Mars 2020 mission, which aims to send a rover to Mars to search for signs of habitability and prepare for future human missions to the Red Planet.

Astronautical engineering major CJ Giovingo's combined passion for space and engineering attracted her to JPL. "I really love that space is always something new and provides a challenge," said the student from Maryland's Capitol College.

Working alongside mentor Tracy Van Houten on the Mars 2020 mission on flight system verification and validation, Giovingo has already made significant contributions in a short amount of time. "Astronautical engineering or any type of design that we're doing for space missions is unique; it's one of the reasons why I like JPL, because you're always having to try new things and think outside of the box, which I think is a really great challenge." 

At JPL, interns have the ability to use what they are learning in school and apply that expertise on a day-to-day basis to real missions and research. 

"Internships really motivate students to stay in a difficult discipline, like a STEM major," said Adrian Ponce, higher education manager for JPL's Education Office. "Why? Because they get to apply what they're learning in classes on real-world problems, and there are a lot of fun problems here that they work on."

Adds Giovingo, "It's not just about the work -- it's about the learning community."

Whether they are analyzing technical data or calibrating 3D printing materials, summer interns at JPL have the opportunity to be a part of projects that are at the forefront of innovation and technology.

University of Texas, Austin, doctoral student Emmanuel Onyegam is excited about assisting the materials development and manufacturing technology group in developing new technology for space missions. "They are making these sugar-cube-size satellites," said Onyegam. "So the idea is you will send these into space and release the satellites. They are so small, it's cheaper as opposed to the big size."

Many students who participate in JPL internships are prospective candidates for the "Early Career Hire" program, which seeks to bring in recent STEM graduates for full-time positions. This was true for computer science major and math minor, Lala Pashian, a former intern who was hired on as a full-time employee with the instrument software and science data systems operation section.

"The day I received the news, I couldn't believe it," said the recent Cal Poly Pomona graduate about learning she had been hired on full-time. "I was like, 'This is a dream!'"

Learn more about JPL internships and fellowships

TAGS: Internships & Fellowships

  • Alexis Drake