Celeste Hoang is a writer and producer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She loves books, films, travel and Batman.


Natalie Deo poses for a photo wearing a shirt with a NASA meatball.

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.

Deo wears a black cap and gown with several yellow and black cords and sashes hung around her neck along with a lei with large pink flowers.

Deo at her graduation from California State University, Los Angeles. Image courtesy Natalie Deo | + Expand image

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.

“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

Deo leans against the base of a statue of USC's Trojan mascot.

Deo poses for a picture on the USC campus, where she's pursuing her master's degree in astronautical engineering. Image courtesy Natalie Deo | + Expand image

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.

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found online at jpl.jobs. Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

TAGS: Internships, College Students, Europa Clipper, Europa, Engineering, Intern, Higher Education

  • Celeste Hoang
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Students write on a glass panel inside the Team X room at JPL

When Jennifer Scully was a planetary geology grad student at UCLA in 2013, she happened upon an email that called for students to apply to something called the Planetary Science Summer School, or PSSS.

“I asked around and everybody only had positive things to say,” she says, “so I applied and I got in.”

She found herself in an immersive, 11-week program that teaches students all over the country how to formulate, design, and pitch a mission concept to a review board of NASA experts – essentially, how to bring a space mission to life from beginning to end.

“It was fabulous,” Scully says of her time in the program. “I come from a science background, and I had worked on an active planetary mission, but I didn’t have much experience with engineering. The summer school gave me my first exposure to mission-concept development and proposals. It was really illuminating.”

Seven years later, Scully is now a geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, researching the asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres. She also plays a role in planning and designing missions to explore Jupiter's moon Europa. She’s still part of the PSSS program – but, now, as one of the mentors to this year’s cohort of 36 students looking at missions to Venus and Saturn's moon Enceladus.

The first 10 weeks of the program focus on formulation and always happen remotely via webinar. The final week usually culminates with an intensive in-person experience at JPL, during which participants write their mission proposal. Participants receive mentorship from scientists and engineers with the laboratory's Team X, a group that has been helping design and evaluate mission concepts since 1985. Even though the pandemic means their “culminating week” won’t take place physically at the laboratory this year, the students are still descending virtually on the JPL community between July 20 and Aug. 7 to learn the complex dance of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to dreaming up a NASA mission.

Web meeting with the 2020 PSSS cohort

The first of two summer 2020 cohorts to arrive virtually at JPL for their culminating week in the PSSS program. While these one-week sessions are traditionally held in person, this year's group is meeting remotely. | + Expand image

“We do this for the broader planetary science mission community,” says PSSS manager Leslie Lowes, who’s been leading the program since 2010. “It’s about NASA training the next generation of scientists and engineers to do this type of work. Over 650 alumni use this model of mission design, and they’re in all kinds of leadership positions across NASA, including at JPL.”

Developed in 1989, the summer school started as a lecture series on how space missions could address the latest science discoveries and gradually shifted to a more hands-on format in 1999. Instead of hearing about the process, why not let students experience it?

“The first thing we do [when participants arrive at JPL] is help them evaluate potential architectures for their mission. Is it an orbiter or a lander? Is it a flyby?” says Alfred Nash, a mentor for the summer school and a lead engineer for Team X. “Does the science work? Do the engineering and cost work? The problem is not ‘can you make the thing,’ but ‘can you make the thing within the boundaries you have?’”

For Team X, it’s all about an integrated approach, which is one of the principal differences between how missions were developed in earlier days of exploration versus more recently. “Team X itself, its superpower is its ability to work in parallel and concurrently,” Nash says, stressing the importance of how the science should work in parallel with the engineering, the storytelling, the cost, and the project management.

A team of distinguished postdocs and graduate students learns what it's like to design a space mission in just five days as part of the 2014 session of NASA's Planetary Science Summer School at JPL. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

“What is the big thing I’m trying to do? How do all the pieces work together? What is the foundational heart of this in terms of how we’re going to change humanity’s understanding? What are the pieces we need so that happens, and what does it take to do that?” are common questions Nash says Team X asks of all its mission proposals – including the concepts developed in PSSS.

One key lesson Nash tries to impart during the culminating week: “Win [the proposal] and don't regret it when you do,” he says. “The last thing you want to do is design a mission that no one can manage.”

If the students’ answers can pass the rigorous initial hurdles and meet the requirements for a NASA proposal, then they transition to design work. At that point, each student is paired with a mentor who has expertise in a range of engineering capabilities, from mission design to the science tools that will go on a spacecraft.

While this would normally mean working together at JPL, the program has gone virtual this year.

Team X had some practice setting up a virtual experience for the summer’s incoming students, as most JPL employees have been on mandatory telework since mid-March. Currently, the students are in a “waterfall of [web meeting] rooms,” as Nash describes it, where there’s one central meeting room and then individual “stations” in separate rooms, where students and mentors can interface while moving from room to room as needed. A typical day kicks off at 8 a.m. with a daily briefing. Then, students spend half the day with Team X and half the day on their own, preparing for the next day’s tasks. Their day ends at 5 p.m. with a briefing to review what was completed, what worked well, what didn’t, and what needs to change for the next day.

“Everyone knows science, if they’re a scientist, and engineering, if they’re an engineer,” says PSSS alumna Scully. “But now, they’re really trying to understand what mission development is about. This foundation will enable them to work with NASA much more effectively.”

The cohorts that arrive every year are formidable, and this summer’s group is no different: Among the students are 26 Ph.D. candidates and eight postdoctoral researchers.

For Elizabeth Spiers – a Ph.D. candidate studying the habitability of other planets at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and one of this summer’s students examining Enceladus’ ocean – PSSS has provided her with invaluable experience in real-time mission concept problem-solving.

“The project moves quickly and some of our decisions must be made equally as fast,” Spiers says. “Oftentimes, no person on our team knows the answers, and we need to figure out what we don’t know or understand about the problem so that we can ask the correct questions swiftly.”

In addition to critical thinking, the summer school also gives its students the chance to work with a diverse group of students and mentors.

Watkins and Smythe look at a computer screen together

NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins, an alumna of the program, attending her PSSS session in 2016 with mentor Bill Smythe. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

“It’s really exhilarating to see all of those disparate backgrounds and expertise come together into one cohesive project,” Spiers says. “I have learned so much about not only our project and the science and engineering related to it, but also about my teammates and their individual passions.”

Over the years, the program has taught students lessons they can carry with them throughout their careers. PSSS alumna Jessica Watkins went on to become a NASA astronaut and, at JPL, two summer school alumni-led development of science instruments on the Perseverance Mars roverPIXL and SHERLOC. And this year, there’s a new star in the program, literally: The summer school is piloting a second experience called the Heliophysics Mission Design School to help strengthen hypothesis-driven science investigations when designing missions to the Sun.

Perhaps one lesson students will take away from PSSS is not only knowing what they want, but also recognizing the limits of space exploration.

“The most rewarding thing is seeing them make good decisions,” says Nash. “When they avoid trying to do something too expensive just because it’s cool. When they find a more fruitful way forward. What you want has nothing to do with it; it’s about what the world will let you do and how clever you are at navigating those boundaries.”

This feature is part of an ongoing series about the stories and experiences of JPL scientists, engineers, and technologists who paved a path to a career in STEM with the help of NASA's Planetary Science Summer School program. › Read more from the series

Explore More

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.

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found online at jpl.jobs. Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, College Students, Virtual Internships, PSSS, Planetary Science Summer School, Ph.D. Programs, Science, Mission Design, PSSS Alumn

  • Celeste Hoang
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Amiee Quon points to a small rover built out of legos as her team stands in a circle around her examining the rover.

Last week, 40 community college students landed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to accept the challenge of building miniature Mars rovers over the course of four days, from July 9-12, putting their designs to the test in a series of competitions on simulated Martian terrain.

The challenge is part of the National Community College Aerospace Scholar, or NCAS, program, which hosts hundreds of students across multiple NASA centers for a twice-yearly educational workshop and engineering competition. The activity provides students with an up-close and intimate look at NASA missions, and an opportunity to present their work to a panel of judges.

Several students stand against a wall while another sets a miniature rover on a red surface meant to simulate Martian terrain

Students ready their rover to compete in one of two challenges that took place during the activity at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

One key part of their week here: The students, who are divided into four teams, are mentored by NASA scientists and engineers. And at JPL – where the competition is organized by the Education Office – nobody knows the mentorship experience better than Amiee Quon and Otto Polanco, JPL's two longest-serving NCAS mentors.

In 2012, Quon – who participated in the high school version of NCAS when she was 16 – saw an email circulated at JPL requesting mentors for the competition. She signed up and has been a mentor ever since.

“It’s so rewarding to see how excited they are about engineering, and when they work hard on something and collaborate, that things work out for them,” says Quon, a mechanical integration engineer who has worked on the Mars 2020 helicopter and the Juno mission orbiting Jupiter, and is currently working on the Europa Clipper mission.

10 students and Quon stand in two rows smiling with their winnings, including a padfolio and a Hot Wheels rover

Quon's team poses for a photo with their winnings from the summer 2019 competition. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

Things worked out especially well for Quon's mentees this session: The 10 students on her team were named the winners of the summer 2019 competition.

“My team was very cohesive, and I was impressed by how well they worked together to design, build and operate their successful rover,” she says. “All the teams did a great job on the toughest competition course I’ve ever seen.”

For Polanco, being a mentor is a capstone on his own experience as a community college student. He started his undergraduate studies at Santa Monica College, transferred to Cal State L.A. to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, and eventually landed an internship at JPL. He's been at JPL for 15 years and has worked as an optical-mechanical engineer on the Mars Science Laboratory mission, Starshade project and more.

The NCAS competition is an opportunity for Polanco to encourage students to go after what they want to do – including helping one female college freshman, whose family expected her to marry and have children instead of chasing a STEM career. Polanco guided her during an NCAS competition and stayed in touch throughout her college years; today, she’s pursuing a Ph.D. at Caltech and studying global climate change.

Polanco makes a claw motion with his hands, while three students stand in a semi circle around him with one student mimicking the claw motion

Polanco speaks with several of his mentees during the summer 2019 session of NCAS. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

“The most rewarding part is influencing people’s perspectives about what their engineering futures might be,” he says. “It’s about convincing them to pursue their dreams and passions and seeing them grow over the years.”

While Quon and Polanco play a big part in helping guide the students through various Mars rover challenges and their final presentations, they both recognize that their ultimate roles lie in reminding students that they deserve to achieve anything they set their minds to.

“A lot of our mentorship is raising the confidence levels of individuals,” Polanco says. “It’s through these side conversations that you often hear, ‘I’m not qualified or worthy enough to work here.’” And I always ask them, ‘Why do you put a ceiling on yourself?’”

Adds Quon: “We talked to somebody during the competition who felt they would be at a disadvantage going to career fairs because they transferred [into their current university]. But you’ve worked hard to get to where you are. There’s absolutely no reason to feel 'less than.'”

To that end, Polanco encourages more people at JPL to mentor when they can.

“I think it’s a really good experience for JPL employees to go through, to see how their own experience can help others,” he says. “My little path is a good example of what people can do. There are so many students in community college who struggle to see that end achievement. But the institution is good about hiring talent and [individuals with] strong work ethic, no matter where you went to school.”


The NCAS program is funded by the NASA Minority University Research and Education Program. Learn more and apply, here.

TAGS: Higher Education, Community College, NCAS, Mentors, Students, STEM, Engineering

  • Celeste Hoang
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Nagin Cox holds a patch that reads, "The Stars Are Calling And We Must Go"

In 1975, 10-year-old Nagin Cox’s home life was unraveling. It was a time when Cox grew up hearing that girls were “worthless” and thought only about making it to age 18 so she could be free.

“I remember looking up at the stars and thinking, ‘I’m going to live and get through this,” Cox, now a spacecraft systems engineer for Mars 2020 recalls. “I need to set a goal. I need something so meaningful it will help me get through the next eight years.'”

That goal revealed itself when she was 14, a curly-haired Indian girl fascinated by “Star Trek” and Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” She wanted to explore the universe. And no, she didn't want to be an astronaut.

“If you really want to go where someone has never been, you want to be with the robots. They truly explore first,” she says. “There was one place that did that consistently and that was NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

She just needed to figure out how.

› Continue reading on NASA's Solar System Exploration website


TAGS: Women in STEM, People, Spacecraft, Missions, Engineering, Mars Rovers, Mars 2020, Curiosity, Spirit

  • Celeste Hoang
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