Taylor Hill is a writer on the Internal Communications and Engagement team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He enjoys camping, eating meatball subs, and bees – even though they tend to sting him.
Five years in, a JPL initiative forging relationships with students and faculty at historically Black colleges and universities continues expanding its reach, hosting 48 interns this year.
Brandon Ethridge, a flight systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, has had a year to remember. The 24-year-old got engaged, became a father, and is celebrating the one-year anniversary of starting full time at JPL – his self-described dream job.
“Definitely the most eventful year of my life,” Ethridge said.
While he’s been gaining experience testing systems used to build spacecraft, Ethridge has spent minimal time at the Laboratory due to the pandemic. But the North Carolina native already had plenty of first-hand knowledge of JPL thanks to his summer 2019 internship – an opportunity that presented itself at a JPL informational session that spring at his alma mater, North Carolina A&T State University.
“That allowed me the chance to speak one-on-one with Jenny Tieu and Roslyn Soto [JPL Education project managers],” Ethridge said. “They were incredibly generous with their time and provided resume critiques, feedback, and general advice about how to get an opportunity at JPL.”
Since 2017, Tieu has been leading JPL’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities/Underrepresented Minorities, or HBCU/URM, initiative – an effort to increase and foster a more diverse workforce in technical roles at the Laboratory. It’s one of many programs facilitating the more than 550 internship opportunities offered through the Education Office this year.
Now in its fifth year, the program has seen rapid growth; from seven interns in its first year, to 24 interns in 2020. This year, JPL is welcoming 48 students interning remotely from institutions including Howard, North Carolina A&T, Tuskegee, and Prairie View A&M universities, along with underrepresented-minority students from universities including UCLA, USC, UC Riverside, Duke, Cal Poly Pomona, and more.
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The initiative includes funding and support to bring in faculty from the schools to take part in research with the students, building in a cohort model that facilitates sustainable interactions with JPL.
“We’re intentional about addressing the culture shock that some of these students may experience,” Tieu said. “With the cohort model, the faculty members can provide guidance to the students while they are navigating new relationships, connections, and a new city.”
Additionally, interns are invited to participate in roundtable conversations in groups where they can share concerns and openly discuss their experiences at JPL. Tieu has also set up virtual meet-ups where students can get to know employees from outside their groups and hear talks from members of JPL’s Black Excellence Strategic Team and past HBCU alumni.
For Ethridge, being in a position to give back to the program was something he prioritized.
“I wanted to repay some of the many kindnesses that were afforded to me,” Ethridge said. “I also feel that I am in a unique position because I just recently went through the process.”
For Howard University junior Kyndall Jones, the draw to JPL came following a fellow student’s acceptance into the program.
“I was so amazed that he had an internship with NASA, and it really sparked my interest,” Jones said. “After doing my research on the program, I submitted my resume and heard back after a few months, landed an interview, and now here I am [virtually]!”
Despite the telework nature of this summer’s internship, Jones said that even from her home in Dayton, Ohio, she has been able to foster connections with JPL employees and gain valuable experience in her role working on software for an Earth-science instrument that will help NASA understand how different types of air pollution, which can cause serious health problems, affect human health.
And thanks to her mentor, Operations Systems Engineer Janelle Wellons, Jones was able to get the type of hands-on NASA experience that’s been hard to come by since the pandemic.
“My mentor Janelle suggested that I come visit Los Angeles for a few days this summer, and I was finally able to visit and explore the city for the first time,” Jones said. “I am also super grateful for her setting up a tour at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center where we were able to view, tour, and learn lots of interesting facts about NASA’s historical aircraft.”
Wellons – who splits her time operating instruments aboard several Earth-observing missions – had been involved in previous years’ roundtable discussions with HBCU interns, but this year, she had the opportunity to hire her own interns through the program. Being from the East Coast herself, Wellons remembers having little awareness of JPL as a potential career landing spot while studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Getting visibility and actually partnering with these schools to make these internships happen is so important,” Wellons said. “Actively interacting with HBCUs is only going to do good for people we would otherwise potentially never get an application from, and it benefits JPL by broadening the talent pool and diversity of our workforce.”
As for the future, Jones sees the initiative as one step of many for her and fellow interns toward careers in engineering and science.
“I know a lot of Howard students that are interning or have interned with JPL, and the love from our College of Engineering and Architecture is especially high,” Jones said. “The info sessions, resume workshops, and networking workshops that JPL has been able to put on have been great, and the more they can do, the better for students.”
Tieu agrees, adding, "We are happy to see the growth of the initiative but look forward to making further progress. There's so much more we would like to accomplish in the years ahead."
To learn more about the HBCU/URM initiative and apply, see the Maximizing Student Potential in STEM program page. The HBCU/URM initiative resides within this program.
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
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.
When the new crop of summer interns started showing up at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, this past June, they joined the more than 2,000-plus students placed across NASA’s 10 field centers, instantly becoming part of the NASA family.
“They may not be together geographically, but these interns are getting this unique experience all over the country,” said Katherine Brown, public affairs officer for education at NASA Headquarters.
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But between the challenging workloads, exciting education opportunities and inspiring culture at JPL, interns who come to the laboratory often see only one piece of the NASA puzzle. Intern and University of Colorado Boulder astrophysics student Maya Yanez has spent the past two summers at JPL – one working on describing potential radical chemistry on Kuiper Belt objects, and one helping to identify potential landing sites on Jupiter’s moon Europa.
“You get the chance to be a little sprocket in this massive machine of making things happen at JPL, but then you can kind of lose sight of the fact that JPL is one component of NASA, and there are hundreds of interns at other centers doing comparable things,” Yanez said.
This year, NASA Headquarters’ internship and communications coordinator Christine Linsinbigler saw opportunities to bring the centers together. She organized an agency-wide live feed of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s intern town hall at Goddard Space Flight Center on July 26, and an ISS downlink Q&A – where interns got to pre-record questions for astronauts to answer live from the space station – on July 30.
“With National Intern Day on July 26, we were able to roll the events into one big intern week,” Linsinbigler said.
Answers from the Administrator
This was the first year a NASA administrator conducted a NASA-wide town hall, where interns from all of the centers could submit questions in short videos. Yanez was selected to live-tweet Bridenstine’s responses from the JPL Education Office’s @NASAJPL_Edu handle so students, JPLers and members of the public could see some of the responses.
“The administrators’ town hall was really important because, for the first time, I had an opportunity as an undergrad to ask about our future and the future of space funding,” said Yanez, who also hopes to one day run for office. “This is a person who has power over our future. I think it’s important to keep that communication between science and politics.”
Yanez was also appreciative of the administrator’s openness to discuss inclusion and diversity in the field, and how NASA plans to maintain its current programs.
“I’m half Mexican, a female in STEM, a first-generation college student, and low income, so I check off a lot of those representative boxes,” Yanez said. “It was nice that he spent as much time on that question as he did. He talked about how it mattered to him and how it should matter to all of us.”
At NASA Headquarters, inclusion and diversity within NASA starts with the intern program, which saw its largest and most diverse applicant pool of interns this summer. Brown said it followed a concerted effort of making the public aware that an internship at JPL, Langley or Johnson is more than just for STEM students – there are opportunities in communications, human resources, education and other fields that are all relevant to how the agency runs.
“We’ve showcased interns on our social media, we held a Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ Q&A with Johnson Space Center Flight Director Allison Bollinger, and we’re hoping that including more events like the administrator town hall and ISS downlink will continue to attract a diverse group to NASA,” Brown said.
Questions to Space
When JPL intern Zachary Luppen heard about the ISS downlink – and that he would have a chance to ask an astronaut a question – he already had pages of questions lined up.
“I had always wanted to ask an astronaut something, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it,” said Luppen, who is entering his senior year as an astronomy physics major at the University of Iowa. “I really want to go into space, and here I suddenly have this opportunity to throw a question at an astronaut and get it answered.”
The pre-recorded video questions from interns across NASA centers were played during the ISS downlink on July 30, and JPL interns gathered to hear astronaut Ricky Arnold’s responses. Luppen asked Arnold if there were any specific pointers he could give NASA interns who want to be astronauts themselves, and go to the ISS, the Moon or even Mars.
“The temptation is to specialize early, and it’s great to find your passion and pursue it, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture,” Arnold said. “NASA is looking for people with very diverse backgrounds, who have done a lot of different things in different environments with different people.”
Luppen said the ISS downlink was special, as it was one of many “bucket list” items he was able to check off during his summer at JPL, but the work he conducted at the laboratory was more important to his future. Over his 10 weeks at JPL, Luppen worked on test procedures for the dual-frequency radar instrument (REASON) slated to ride aboard NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft. That allowed him to connect with a group of employees who are really doing what he wants to do.
“At Iowa, we’re building parts of the Europa [Clipper mission] there too, but we’re not working on spacecraft to the degree that JPL is,” Luppen said. “I’m here with like-minded people, fantastic scientists and engineers who are working on these projects, and it’s just great to finally be at a center where it’s so productive. It’s almost like chaos, but it’s so cool. I mean, how many missions did we have launch this summer? So, it’s just like, we’re so busy, and I’m getting to be a part of it this summer.”
Intern Christopher Jia-Kuan Yen, a senior geology-chemistry student at Brown University, spent his summer working with Deputy Project Scientist Abigail Fraeman on remote sensing and imaging instruments aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. As for the question he asked of astronaut Ricky Arnold, it was – of course – imagery based.
“I wanted to know, based on what he’s seen from the windows of the ISS, where he would most like to visit on Earth,” Yen said.
Arnold responded that the list seems to get longer every day he’s on the station, but the mountains of Peru, Chile and Argentina have caught his eye. “I guess I’ll have to head down there and check it out someday,” Yen said with a smile. In retrospect, Yen viewed the ISS Downlink as one more example of how special interning at JPL can be.
“There are just so many things going on here,” he said. “Between the work you’re doing, the lectures – I mean, we had the Mars helicopter team present to us – and the events like the ISS Downlink, I don’t think you’re getting opportunities like those at your university internship.”
This summer, 400 JPL employees participated as mentors, providing guidance to the 700 interns working in various fields across the laboratory.
To learn more about this year’s interns, visit:
Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.