Each year, 1,000 students come to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for internships at the place where space robots are born and science is made. Their projects span the STEM spectrum, from engineering the next Mars rover to designing virtual-reality interfaces to studying storms on Jupiter and the possibility of life on other planets. But the opportunity for students to "dare mighty things" at JPL wouldn't exist without the people who bring them to the Laboratory in the first place – the people known as mentors.
A community of about 500 scientists, engineers, technologists and others serve as mentors to students annually as part of the internship programs managed by the JPL Education Office. Their title as mentors speaks to the expansiveness of their role, which isn't just about generating opportunities for students, but also guiding and shaping their careers.
"Mentors are at the core of JPL's mission, pushing the frontiers of space exploration while also guiding the next generation of explorers," says Adrian Ponce, who leads the team that manages JPL's internship programs. "They are an essential part of the career pipeline for future innovators who will inspire and enable JPL missions and science."
Planetary scientist Glenn Orton has been bringing students to JPL for internships studying the atmospheres of planets like Jupiter and Saturn since 1985. He keeps a list of their names and the year they interned with him pinned to his office wall in case he's contacted as a reference. The single-spaced names take up 10 sheets of paper, and he hasn't even added the names of the students he's brought in since just last year.
It makes one wonder what he could need that many students to do – until he takes out another paper listing the 11 projects in which he's involved.
"I think I probably have the record for the largest number of [projects] at JPL," says Orton, who divides his time between observing Jupiter with various ground- and space-based telescopes, comparing his observations with the ones made by NASA's Juno spacecraft, contributing to a database where all of the above is tracked and producing science papers about the team's discoveries.
"Often, you get to be the first person in the world who will know about something," says Orton. "That's probably the best thing in the world. The most exciting moment you have in this job is when you discover something."
Over the years, Orton's interns have been authors on science papers and have even taken part in investigating unexpected stellar phenomena – like the time when a mysterious object sliced into Jupiter's atmosphere, sparking an urgent whodunnit that had Orton and his team of interns on the case.
Orton says his passion for mentoring students comes from the lack of mentorship he received as a first-generation college student. At the same time, he acknowledges the vast opportunities he was given and says he wants students to have them, too.
"As a graduate student, it was close to my first experience doing guided research, so I had no idea how research was communicated or conducted," says Orton of his time at Caltech, when he often worried that his classmates and professors would discover he wasn't "Nobel material." "I want to be able to work with students, which I sincerely enjoy, to instruct them on setting down a research goal, determining an approach, modifying it when things inevitably hit a bump, as well as communicating results and evaluating next steps."
For Alexandra Holloway and Krys Blackwood, the chance to provide new opportunities isn't just what drives them to be mentors, but also something they look for when choosing interns.
"I look for underdogs, students who are not representing themselves well on paper," says Holloway. "Folks from underrepresented backgrounds are less likely to have somebody guide them through, 'Here's how you make your résumé. Here's how you apply.' The most important thing is their enthusiasm for learning something new or trying something new."
It's for this reason that Holloway and Blackwood have become evangelists for JPL's small group of high-school interns, who come to the Laboratory through a competitive program sponsored by select local school districts. While less experienced than college students, high-school interns more than make up for it with perseverance and passion, says Blackwood.
"[High-school interns] compete to get a spot in the program, so they are highly motivated kids," she says. "Your results may vary on their level of skill when they come in, but they work so hard and they put out such great work."
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Holloway and Blackwood met while working on the team that designs the systems people use to operate spacecraft and other robotic technology at JPL – that is, the human side of robotics. Holloway has since migrated back to robots as the lead software engineer for NASA's next Mars rover. But the two still often work together as mentors for the students they bring in to design prototypes or develop software used to operate rovers and the antennas that communicate with spacecraft across the solar system.
It's important to them that students get a window into different career possibilities so they can discover the path that speaks to them most. The pair say they've seen several students surprised by the career revelation that came at the end of their internships.
"For all of our interns, we tailor the project to the intern, the intern's abilities, their desires and which way they want to grow," says Holloway. "This is such a nice place where you can stretch for just a little bit of time, try something new and decide whether it's for you or not. We've had interns who did design tasks for us and at the end of the internship, they were like, 'You know what? I've realized that this is not for me.' And we were like, 'Awesome! You just saved yourself five years.'"
The revelations of students who intern with Parag Vaishampayan in JPL's Planetary Protection group come from something much smaller in scale – microscopic, even.
Vaishampayan's team studies some of the most extreme forms of life on Earth. The group is trying to learn whether similar kinds of tough microbes could survive on other worlds – and prevent those on Earth from hitching a ride to other planets on NASA spacecraft. An internship in Planetary Protection means students may have a chance to study these microbes, collect samples of bacteria inside the clean room where engineers are building the latest spacecraft or, for a lucky few, name bacteria.
"Any researcher who finds a new kind of bacteria gets a chance to name it," says Vaishampayan. "So we always give our students a chance to name any bacterium they discover after whoever they want. People have named bacteria after their professors, astronauts, famous scientists and so forth. We just published a paper where we named a bacterium after Carl Sagan."
The Planetary Protection group hosts about 10 students a year, and Vaishampayan says he's probably used every JPL internship program to bring them in. Recently, he's become a superuser of one designed for international students and another that partners with historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, to attract students from diverse backgrounds and set them on a pathway to a career at the Laboratory.
"I can talk for hours and hours about JPL internships. I think they are the soul of the active research we are doing here," says Vaishampayan. "Had we not had these programs, we would not have been able to do so much research work." In the years ahead, the programs might become even more essential for Vaishampayan as he takes on a new project analyzing 6,000 bacteria samples collected from spacecraft built in JPL's clean rooms since 1975.
With interns making up more than 15 percent of the Laboratory population each year, Vaishampayan is certainly not alone in his affection for JPL's internship programs. And JPL is equally appreciative of those willing to lend time and support to mentoring the next generation of explorers.
Says Adrian Ponce of those who take on the mentorship role through the programs his team manages, "Especially with this being National Mentoring Month, it's a great time to highlight the work of our thriving mentor community. I'd like to thank JPL mentors for their tremendous efforts and time commitment as they provide quality, hands-on experiences to students that support NASA missions and science, and foster a diverse and talented future workforce."
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.
I grew up moving around in the U.S. and Mexico, which made it hard to
keep up with school. I mainly struggled with my language arts classes,
but there were areas in which I excelled: math and science. I was in
high school when I decided I wanted to be a scientist; I was fascinated
by the explanations of the world through chemistry and physics. Although
I was living in Mexico at that time, I never gave up on the dream of
attending an American university to pursue my education. In 2010, my
family and I moved to California to escape the dangers of drug cartels
that had invaded our town.
I was already a high school senior in my last semester when I enrolled in school. I had already missed all the university deadlines, hadn't taken the SATs and had to attend adult school in the afternoon to make up for missing credits. Despite all of that, I graduated on time and decided to attend the College of the Sequoias, a local community college, where I am now majoring in chemistry. (I will be transferring to the University of California, Los Angeles in the fall!)
During my freshman year, I heard about the NASA National Community
College Aerospace Scholars Program, and I decided to give it a shot. I
used my basic knowledge of chemistry to write a series of proposals for a
mission to Mars that included a timeline, budget and rover design.
Based on my individual performance, I was selected on a competitive
basis to attend the on-site team project at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory. There were about 40 students from all over the U.S. We were
split into four teams to put our ideas together and build a rover. We
called our team "Red Planet Research" and our rover was named "Isis."
(It was my birthday!) Through this I experience, I saw what it takes to
be a NASA scientist and engineer. I also discovered that I wanted to
become one of the JPL scientists who are involved with exploration
missions. I was hooked on studying the Earth and planets. I returned to
my school excited for what was to come and shared my excitement with
others. I am happy to say that four students from my community college
participated in NCAS this year at JPL.
In August of 2013, I received an email from NASA Education saying that I had been selected to receive the Minority University Research and Education Program (MUREP) scholarship! The program guarantees two summer internships at any NASA center. Right away, I knew I wanted to come back to JPL. Although I come from a small community college, I managed to be a competitive applicant due to my involvement with science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, such as the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement Program and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.
This summer, for the first of my two NASA internships as a MUREP scholar, I am working in the AstroBiogeoChemistry (ABC) Lab measuring hydrogen and oxygen isotopes in hydrated clay minerals. Our goal is to improve instrument precision and techniques for possible future return-sample missions.
It's a dream come true to finally work in a planetary chemistry and astrobiology lab. I have the opportunity to meet researchers who are passionate about their work and be involved in exciting research. But I think the best part of the internship is my lab group. There are two other interns, two post-doctorate interns, a Ph.D. student, and my mentor. They all take the time to tell us about the work they're doing and, most important, mentor us as rising scientists. Throughout my experience, I have learned a lot about research, and I am inspired to continue in the STEM field. I was nervous before coming to JPL and didn't know what to expect, but being part of the ABC Lab has exceeded all my expectations. I encourage all community college students to apply for NASA opportunities.
Although my internship is coming to an end, I am happy to say that I will be back next summer to do more exciting research.
Learn more about JPL internships and fellowships
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."