Yohn Ellis wears a JPL shirt and poses in front of a brick wall.

When Yohn Ellis got his chance to intern at NASA, he wasn't about to let it slip away, pandemic or not. Growing up and going to school in Houston, Texas, the home of NASA's Johnson Space Center, Ellis has long been a superfan of the agency. So when he was offered an internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, he jumped at the chance. That was before all but a handful of JPL's essential employees were required to switch to remote work. So instead of a hands-on role, Ellis got first-hand experience in how the laboratory overcomes challenges. Returning intern Evan Kramer caught up with Ellis, a grad student studying electrical engineering at Prairie View A&M University, to learn more about his remote internship this past summer, researching how miniature devices could make their way into spacecraft of the future. Ellis talks about how he made the most of the experience while sharing a full house with his family, what it meant to be part of the JPL community, and how he hopes to pay it all forward.

What are you working on at JPL?

I am working with the radar technology team, doing research into nanotechnology [a field of study looking at miniaturized (nanoscale) materials and devices]. When my internship first started, I researched how nanotech is being used in medicine, health, business, and all these other fields. Then, I started to focus on doing simulations of nanoelectronics. I'm working on gaining new insight into nanotechnology to see how we can utilize it for future projects at JPL.

Tell me a bit more about the simulations you're doing. How might your work be applied to JPL missions and science in the future?

On nanoHUB.org, there are hundreds of tools you can use to simulate different aspects of nanotechnology and nanoelectronics. So I've looked into a lot of these tools. I've had to stick to one of the more user-friendly tools, because I honestly haven't had a lot of exposure to nanotech before. So this internship has been a great learning experience for me. Right now, I'm utilizing a simulation of a nano-transistor. So I'm applying different characteristics and settings to generate different effects to see if there are benefits to making our transistors smaller so we could fit more of them into an integrated circuit.

At the core of nanotech, you want to make things smaller and smaller. If we can make spacecraft and spacecraft instruments smaller, then we can do more science while staying within our size, mass, and power constraints. It's not always clear what the benefits of nanotechnology will be until you start experimenting. With this field, there's a lot of information that we can learn through simulations and modeling because we don't yet know about the behaviors of these new materials. That is why it's beneficial to do these simulations and this research.

What is your average day like?

Before the COVID pandemic hit, my project was going to be at JPL, doing hands-on research. But after [most JPL employees went on mandatory telework] I was fortunate enough to keep my internship and transition to a virtual experience, where I could do some research at home using the simulation software.

My average day is very interesting, working from home around the rest of my family. There are a lot of personalities going on. So it might be that the TV is on downstairs or the dog is barking or my brothers are playing a game or my dad is cooking.

But as far as what I have going on, I start my day around 8 or 9 a.m. and work until about 7 p.m. I check in to some of the virtual webinars. There are a lot of great webinars going on for interns about the cool projects people are working on at JPL. I'm also conducting research, running simulations, reading articles, and sharing what I find out with my mentors, Mohammad Ashtijou and Eric Perez. I produce presentations pretty much weekly, if not biweekly, to convey what I've learned, and then my mentors guide me and steer me in the proper direction.

So my days are pretty unique. Working from home has definitely been an adjustment, but there are some benefits to working from home, such as not having to pay as much for gas or commute anywhere. You just wake up and get yourself started for the day. I will say there are some disadvantages, like not being able to actually put your hands on the stuff you're researching, but there's some benefit to running the simulations instead.

What has the experience of a virtual internship been like?

It's a bit of an adjustment, because I'm a very hands-on person. I like going out there and being involved, especially in the workplace and networking. But there is a way to network virtually. I've met some very interesting people and have had a chance to share some of who I am with them, to kind of put myself out there. I even created a virtual newsletter. Every time I network with someone new, I send them my newsletter to bridge that networking gap and paint a picture of who I am outside of the work that I do. I enjoy getting to share that with everyone, and I get a lot of good feedback from it.

Being a virtual intern is something that I'd see myself doing again. I've loved the virtual experience. It's been great. With everything being virtual, I feel like everyone has a little bit more time to interact with you. They're more likely to take that meeting and just talk to you about how your day is going and share how things are going at home for them, too.

So the virtual experience was definitely something that I'll never forget, and I'm super appreciative of it. There was one point when JPL thought they would have to postpone the internship. With me being a full-time grad student, I desperately wanted to have this experience, because I plan to continue toward a Ph.D. Not everyone gets to say they interned with NASA.

I can honestly say that this internship, even though it's virtual, has by far been the most beneficial from an exposure standpoint. The stuff that's being done at NASA-JPL is out of this world. I'm pretty sure a lot of people use that type of verbiage when they talk about NASA, but it really is amazing some of the stuff that I've been exposed to – from the missions that are going on to some of the resources that I have had access to as an intern to develop my skills and network.

What is the most uniquely JPL or NASA experience you've had so far?

Learning about Perseverance, the Mars rover that launched this summer, and hearing first-hand about how it was built, how it's going to collect soil samples, and look into biosignatures – you would think it's science fiction. To me, it's so exciting, because as a youth, I dreamed about working at NASA, and now I'm doing it.

I've also felt a real connection to the culture at JPL. I've felt supported and comforted by JPL as an African-American man during these hardships we've been going through. It's true that JPL is making a lot of advancements in science and space, but I think it's uniquely JPL that there are people there who truly care about you as an individual. They see you, and they hear you, and they want to help you develop as a person as well as an engineer or professional. I really felt as if I was cared for as an individual this summer, and that spoke a lot to me.

I fully agree. I haven't had the life experiences that you've had, but that is certainly something that I feel as well. This is my third internship at JPL, and all the mentors that I've had have really expressed that you're not just here to contribute your labor for 10 weeks. You're here to develop as a person. And they want to help you develop.

Where do you go to school and what are you studying?

I'm wrapping up my Master's in electrical engineering at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college and university [HBCU] in Houston, Texas. My thesis is about machine learning and artificial intelligence. I am utilizing algorithms that do regression analysis to predict ground-water levels throughout the state of Texas. I was recruited to do that research through a program at my university called CREDIT [Center of excellence in Research and Education for big military Data inTelligence.] When I graduated from undergrad and expressed that I wanted to continue to graduate school for my Master's degree, CREDIT extended the opportunity for me to join the study as a graduate research assistant. So I've been doing that for about two years now, and I'm getting ready to transition to a Ph.D. level.

What brought you to JPL for this internship?

I vividly remember being infatuated with NASA as a youth, so much so that my parents ordered me a pamphlet from Space Center Houston with posters and stickers explaining all of the cool things happening across NASA. I will never forget when I was able to visit the center during spring break in 2009. It was by far the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed as a youth.

As life goes on, you don't think as much about your childhood dreams, but every time I saw an opportunity at NASA I applied. When I saw that JPL was looking to take on interns, I was just wrapping up my Master's, and I figured, "Let me give it another shot." I spent a lot of time working on my application, making sure it looked as good as possible. Who would've thought that months later, I would've been afforded the opportunity?

What's your ultimate career goal?

My goal is to develop my career enough so that I can share my experience and passion with others in my community and communities similar to the one I grew up in. I also want to share how STEM benefits society and how a career in STEM is attainable. A lot of times, people say, "I don't like math," or, "I don't like science." Quite frankly, I see myself as someone who didn't like those subjects much either. But I knew that I wanted to work for NASA one day or work in the field of engineering, so I had to get comfortable with those subjects. So my ultimate goal is to know that my career is set so that I can give back to communities where there are people who might be unsure of what they are capable of. I would also like to give kudos to JPL, because I see that they have a lot of involvement with local communities, doing educational outreach.

I fully agree. I've been giving talks to high-school students about the Perseverance Mars rover, and it is the most rewarding thing to see younger students who don't really know what they want to do in the future get excited [about STEM]. Now they're interested, and you can give them the tools to go out and maybe pursue it.

Most definitely. And that's how you pour into the next person so that they can pour into the next person.

How do you feel you're contributing to NASA-JPL missions and science?

I remember early on in my JPL internship, in one of the webinars, they expressed how this experience is meant to ultimately give you exposure but also inspire you to develop yourself. I believe that I'm contributing in that way by being someone who is driven, motivated, and also willing to take those chances to look deeper than the basic assignment.

When you're not in school or interning, how do you like to spend your time?

I'm having a good time with my family. My brothers and I play board games together. I work out sometimes. For the most part, I've been spending time with the family, playing a video game in my free time, shopping online a little bit, and connecting with my frat brothers. I've done a lot of virtual events for people in the community, talking about COVID safety and stressing the importance of voting, with the elections coming up.

I also find myself doing a lot of internal development. So that would be reading a little bit more for pleasure, and also doing some assessments of my goals and budgeting. I like to look at this pandemic as a sort of "halftime" when I can work on some things for me to better develop myself.

My last question is a fun one: If you could have a spacecraft built to study anything you want, what would it be?

I'd like to study how to sustain or better germinate resources on Earth. If we can find a way to learn what's going on globally on a more intimate scale, I believe that would help us utilize our planet's resources more effectively – resources that could pertain to producing more crops for food, for example.

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

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Kim Orr contributed to this story.


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, Careers, Jobs, Engineering, Electrical Engineering, HBCU, Black History Month

  • Evan Kramer
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Christine wears a scrunchy on her wrist while pointing to the 3D printer, which sits on a dresser between a rack of clothes and a flag hanging on the wall.

It sounds like a reality show: A team of six interns working remotely from their homes across the country given 10 weeks to build a prototype lunar spacecraft that can launch on a balloon over the California desert. But for Christine Yuan, a senior at Cornell University, it was just another engineering challenge.

This summer marked Yuan's second time interning with the Innovation to Flight group at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The group brings in a collaborative team of a dozen or more interns each year. Their task is to create and test prototypes of far-flung ideas for spacecraft and space technology over the course of their internship. But this summer, with most of JPL's employees still on mandatory telework and interns required to complete their projects remotely, the team had an even bigger challenge to overcome: How could they build a spacecraft together while hundreds of miles apart?

Yuan flashed back to her days using materials from around the house to build props and costumes from her favorite TV shows and games. It was what made her want to become a mechanical engineer in the first place. She had a 3D printer and tools in the apartment she shares with a friend from school. So it was decided. She would build the spacecraft in her apartment and mail it in parts to the other interns working on electronics and software from their respective homes.

We caught up with Yuan to learn how she and the team took on the challenge of building a spacecraft from home, how her childhood hobby served as inspiration, and to find out whether the test flight was a success.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm an intern with the Innovation to Flight group, which is a team of interns that works with JPL engineers and scientists to take ideas for new kinds of technology or spacecraft from ideation to flight in one summer. The goal is to quickly develop prototypes to see whether an idea is feasible and increase the technical readiness level of various hardware. I was part of the group last summer, too. This summer, we've been split into two groups. The group I'm working with is exploring whether we might be able to use a constellation of CubeSats [small, low-cost satellites] to support robots and astronauts on the Moon. So we're building prototypes of the CubeSats and the communications and navigation technology.

How might CubeSats support astronauts and robots on the Moon?

The goal is to have a couple of these CubeSats orbiting the Moon that can assist with various surface operations, whether it's a rover or a small robot or an astronaut trying to communicate. There are a couple parts to it. One is localization, the ability to figure out where you are on the Moon – sort of like our GPS on Earth – so different assets know where they are relative to each other. The other part is communication. If you're collecting data, the data could be sent from the surface assets to the CubeSats to another surface asset or ground station. The CubeSats could take away a lot of the onboard processing that needs to happen so assets on the Moon could use less processing power.

You're interning remotely this summer. Are you actually building the CubeSat?

Yeah. On the CubeSat team, there are six of us, so we have a couple of people working on the software and then a few of us are working on building the CubeSat itself. I have a lot of tools and a 3D printer, so I'm working on designing the structure and then prototyping it using the stuff I have at home. The team has been getting materials out to me, and I've been printing stuff on my 3D printer and building it out. Then I've been mailing out parts to our avionics people so they can load it up with all the electronics.

Wow. That's so cool. Are you building all of this at home or in your dorm room? Are the people living with you wondering what you're up to?

I spent the first half of the summer in my parents' house, so I was operating out of their garage. Now that I'm back at school, I work from my apartment. I'm living with one of my friends right now. She's also in the aerospace field so she has an idea of what I'm doing. Most of the time we're just working in our rooms, but I normally have a bit more of a "dynamic" going on in my room.

How has the team adjusted to working remotely?

Half the team is returning from last summer, so we've worked together before. But when we were at JPL, it was easier because we could walk back and forth with parts and hand things off.

When we were planning for the summer, we were talking about the different options that we had. I like to build things in my free time, so I have a bunch of different tools. I'm a mechanical engineer, so I was going to be working on the structure anyway. So I said, "I'll build the structure, ship it in pieces to the rest of the team, and give them a detailed explanation or a CAD model so they can assemble it." Our software and electronics guys are coding everything and sharing their files. Two of the team members are roommates this summer, which is really convenient. They're working on the electronics and avionics out of the basement at one of their family's homes. Then, we're just constantly messaging with each other. We talk at least once a day. It helps that we're a small team.

What's your average day like?

I'm on the East Coast, so the time difference hasn't affected me too badly. I wake up, work out, and then I start work. In the morning, I'll check in with different members of the team. I like to have a to-do list, so I normally have one for the week. Depending on what I need to do, my day ranges anywhere from trying to figure out what I need to prototype next to 3D printing something or drilling holes in this or that. I use any downtime to talk to other team members, figure out what they're doing.

How has the remote experience compared with last summer, when you were at JPL in person?

The most disappointing thing was not being able to be at JPL in person with everyone. Last summer, there were about 15 of us all working in the same room together. We'd have big brainstorming meetings, all getting together and working on the white board. It was kind of a chaotic, loud mess, but it was a lot of fun, and we got a lot of work done. I was always moving around, always talking to somebody, always building something or testing something. I really enjoyed working on a team like that. It was very fast-paced.

This summer, it's a little more difficult, because I haven't met half the team members in person, and it's just slower. We're shipping things to one another and some of us are in different time zones. It's just been a little more difficult to get things done as fast. Another big change is that at the end of last summer, we had two flight tests. We launched one of our prototypes on a tethered balloon, and then we tested some of our other projects on a high-altitude balloon. We're not going to get to do that in person this summer.

Do you feel like you still have that team comradery even though you're apart this summer?

Definitely. Half the people are returning from last summer, so we're still pretty tight, and we're all in this together. It may not be as dynamic and as fast-paced as last summer, but we're building something together pretty well and pretty quickly.

What are you studying in school, and what got you interested in that field?

I'm studying mechanical engineering. I got into mechanical engineering for a variety of reasons. When I was younger, I was a huge nerd – I still am. I would spend my summers in my parents' basement, making costumes and props from my favorite movies and TV shows. I realized that I really liked making things. I liked putting things together and seeing them work. I also think space is really cool. I want to be able to tell my future kids and grandkids, "I worked on projects that helped us discover all these things about the universe." There's so much we don't know, and I know I can't learn everything, but I want to be a part of the discovery process. So I took those two things that I'm pretty hyped about, put them together, and decided that I want to be an engineer. I want to build spaceships. I want to help advance science and make new discoveries.

What were some of the props or costumes that you designed as a kid?

I was a big fan of the "Final Fantasy" video game series, so with the little bit of money that I made from tutoring kids, I would go out and buy different materials to recreate some of the props from that game. Lightning's gunblade was one of the things I made that I thought was pretty cool. I'm also a big fan of the "Fire Emblem" series, so I recreated a couple of things from that. I also like making costumes for my friends.

I'm starting to get back into it, because I have a little bit of free time this summer. Me and my friends have plans to make our own lightsabers and just play around with what we can make and what we can do with the budget and tools we have. That's where the challenge is. As a kid, I was so limited by the materials I had available. I thought it was fun figuring out how to make stuff anyway. How can I hammer this out with what I have in my house?

What brought you to JPL for your internships?

I heard great things from friends who had interned at JPL before. It's one of the best places to be if you want to work on space missions. I'd never been to the West Coast before last summer. I'm from Maryland. I grew up in a town about 20 minutes outside of Baltimore. It was kind of scary [to travel so far from home], but I feel like life's about experiences, so I might as well just do it.

How do you feel you're contributing to NASA missions and science as an intern?

I feel like it's impossible for any one person to make an impact alone. I'm part of a team that's helping assist future lunar missions. In the grand scheme of things, it's a small piece of what humanity is going to achieve in the future, but it's rewarding to know that I'm part of it. I know I'm a small piece in the big machine, but it still feels like a lot, because if you take one piece out of the machine, it can break.

That's a great way of putting it.

When you're not in school or interning, how do you like to spend your time? What are some of your hobbies?

At school, I'm involved with a bunch of different organizations on campus. One of my main extracurriculars is that I build UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]. I'm also involved with a lot of the outdoorsy groups on campus.

When the weather's nice, which in Upstate New York is not always the case, I like to run. I've run some pretty crazy races – Ragnar races, If you ever heard of those – and a couple of relays around the Finger Lakes. I like to run. I like to hike. There's a lot of beautiful mountains and lakes in the Upstate New York area. I've been trying to explore them. And I like to rock climb. I have a couple of friends at school who are super involved in the rock-climbing community, so they got me into it.

When the weather's not so nice, I like to read. I also started to get back into building props and making costumes, because I finally feel like I have time again to sit down and do that. It's a pretty time-consuming hobby.

Now for a fun question: If you could build a spacecraft to go anywhere and study anything, what would it be?

Theoretically, if you had all the technology to do it, I think it would be cool to see inside a black hole. Send a spacecraft in there, and send data out.

----

Since we last talked, your team finished the CubeSat and tested it in the desert! Tell us more about that and how it went?

The tests went pretty well given the circumstances. The team performed a lot of our tests remotely. We ran simulations to test some of the software. Our mock lunar surface asset was able to drive autonomously. Some aspects of the tests were successful and others could use more work, but we laid down a good foundation for future Innovation to Flight interns to build on. Hopefully our work helped the researchers we worked with from JPL and the University of Colorado Boulder.


A novel approach to developing rapid prototypes for space exploration, the Innovation to Flight program was created in 2014 by JPL Fellow Leon Alkalai, who continues to oversee and guide activities. Coordinated by Senior Research Scientist Adrian Stoica with support over the years from Chrishma Derewa, David Atkinson, and Miles Pellazar at JPL, the program has brought in more than 50 student interns from across the country. Offering students a uniquely collaborative experience developing technology for the Moon, Mars, and beyond, Innovation to Flight has also served as a career pathway to numerous program alumni now working at JPL.

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 online at jpl.jobs. Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

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.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, College Students, Careers, Jobs, Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Innovation to Flight, Technology Demonstration, Moon

  • Kim Orr
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Catherine Elder poses in front of a brown-colored mural of the planets.

Catherine Elder's office is a small, cavernous space decorated with pictures of the Moon and other distant worlds she studies as a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Elder has been interested in space science since she was young, but she didn't always imagine she'd be working at one of the few places that builds robotic spacecraft designed to venture to mysterious worlds. A doctorate in planetary science – the study of the evolution of planets and other bodies in space – first brought her to JPL five years ago for research into the geologic history of the Moon. She planned to eventually become a professor, but a sort of gravitational pull has kept her at the laboratory, where in addition to lunar science, she's now involved in projects studying asteroids, Jupiter's moon Europa and future missions. We met up with her earlier this year to talk about her journey, how a program at JPL helped set her career in motion and how she's paying it forward as a mentor to interns.

What do you do at JPL?

A lot of what I do is research science. So that involves interpreting data from spacecraft and doing some modeling to understand the physical properties of places like the Moon, asteroids and Jupiter's moon Europa.

I am also working on mission formulation. So in that case, my role is to work with the engineers to make sure that the missions we're designing will actually be able to obtain the data that we need in order to answer the science questions that we have.

Tell us about some of the projects you're working on.

A lot of my work right now is looking at the Moon. I'm on the team for the Diviner instrument on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. That instrument observes the Moon in infrared, which we can use to understand the geologic history, such as how rocks break down over time. We can also look at specific features, like volcanoes, and understand their material properties. I do similar work on the OSIRIS-REx mission [which aims to return a sample from the asteroid Bennu].

I'm on the Europa Clipper team right now. I'm the investigation scientist for the cameras on the mission [which is designed to make flybys of Jupiter's moon Europa]. So I serve as a liaison between the camera team and other parts of the project.

I'm also working on a project modeling the convection in the rocky portion of Europa, underneath the liquid-water layer. Our goal is to understand how likely it is that there are volcanoes on the seafloor of Europa. A lot of scientists in their previous work have suggested that life could originate in these volcanoes. So we're going back and looking at how likely it is that they exist.

Sounds like fascinating work and like you're keeping busy! What is your average day like?

When I'm analyzing the data and doing modeling, I'm usually at my computer. I do a lot of computer coding and programming. We do a lot of modeling to help interpret the data that we get. For example, if we think we know the physical properties of a surface, how are those going to affect how the surface heats up or cools down over the course of a day? I compare what we find to the observations [from spacecraft] and circle back and forth until we have a better idea of what those surface materials are like.

Then, for the mission work, it's a lot more meetings. I'm in meetings with the engineers and with other scientists, talking about mission requirements, observation plans and things like that.

Tell us a bit about your background and what brought you to JPL.

I have wanted to be an astronomer since I was nine years old. So I was an astronomy major at Cornell University in New York. I didn't really realize planetary science existed, but luckily Cornell is one of the few universities where planetary science is in the astronomy department. A lot of times it's in the geology department. I started to learn more about planetary science by taking classes and realized that was what I was really interested in. So I went to the University of Arizona for grad school and got a Ph.D. in planetary science.

I thought I eventually wanted to be a professor somewhere. A postdoc position is kind of a stepping stone between grad school and faculty positions or other more permanent positions. So I was looking for a postdoc, and I found one at JPL. It was pretty different from what my thesis work had been on, but it sounded really interesting. I didn't think I was going to stay at JPL, but I ended up really liking it, and I got hired as a research scientist.

You also took part in the Planetary Science Summer School at JPL, working on a simulated mission design project. What made you want to apply for that program and what was the experience like?

I've always been interested in missions. I began PSSS when I was a postdoc at JPL, so I was already working with mission data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. But by the time I joined the team, LRO had been orbiting the Moon for more than five years, so it was a well oiled machine.

I was interested in thinking about future missions and how you design one. So PSSS was a really great experience. They gave us a couple targets that we could pick between, and we picked Uranus. We had to come up with all the science objectives we would want to have if we visited Uranus [with a robotic spacecraft]. We had a mix of scientists and engineers, but none of us had studied Uranus, so we had to do a lot of background reading and figure out the big outstanding questions about the planet and its moons. We came up with a ton of them. When we did our first session with Team X, which is JPL's mission formulation team, we realized that we had way too many objectives, and we were never going to be able to achieve all of them in the budget that we had. It was a big wake up call. We had to narrow the scope of what we wanted to do a lot.

Then we had two more sessions with Team X, and we eventually came up with a concept where we were within the budget and we had a couple of instruments that could answer some science questions. Then we presented the mission idea to scientists and engineers at JPL and NASA headquarters who volunteered as judges.

Participants in the Planetary Science Summer School are assigned various roles that are found on real mission design teams. What role did you play?

I had the role of principal investigator [which is the lead scientist for the mission].

How did that experience shape what you're doing today?

Actually, quite a bit. Learning how you develop a science objective and thinking through it, you start with goals like, "I want to understand the formation and evolution of the solar system." That's a huge question. You're never going to answer it in one mission. So the next step is to come up with a testable hypothesis, which for Uranus could be something like, "Is Uranus' current orbit where it originally formed?" And then you have to come up with measurement objectives that can address that hypothesis. Then you have to think about which instruments you need to make those measurements. So learning about that whole process has helped a lot, and it's similar to what I'm doing on the Europa mission now.

Catherine Elder wears a purple shirt and sits in an office chair surrounded by images of the Moon and other worlds

Elder sits in her office in the "science building" at JPL surrounded by images of the places she's working to learn more about. More than just pretty pictures, the images from spacecraft are also one of the key ways she and her interns study moons and planets from afar. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

I also got really interested in the Uranus system, specifically the moons, because they show a lot of signs of recent geologic activity. They might be just as interesting as the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. But Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft that has visited them. At that time, only half of the moons were illuminated, so we've only seen half of these moons. I really want a mission to go back and look at the other half.

Recently, me and a few friends at JPL – two who also did PSSS and one who did a very similar mission formulation program in Europe – got really interested in the Uranus system. So now, in our free time, we're developing a mission concept to study the Uranus system and trying to convince the planetary science community that it’s worth going back to it.

Are there any other moments or memories from PSSS that stand out?

Actually, one I was thinking about recently is that I was in the same session as Jessica Watkins, who recently became a NASA astronaut. I remember I was super stressed out because we had to give this presentation, and me and the project manager, who is a good friend of mine, were disagreeing on some things. But I talked to Jess, and she was just so calm and understanding. So when she got selected as an astronaut, I was like, "That makes sense," [laughs].

But the other thing that stands out is we worked so hard that week. We were at JPL during the day. And in the evening, we would meet again and work another four hours. Now that I'm working on mission development for actual missions, I realize there's so much more that actually goes into a mission, but PSSS gives you a sense of how planetary missions are such a big endeavor. You really need to work as a team.

You've also served as a mentor, bringing interns to JPL. Tell us a bit about that experience and what made you interested in being a mentor?

I've worked with five students at this point, all undergrads. I've always been interested in being a mentor. I was a teaching assistant for a lot of grad school, and I really enjoyed that. I like working one-on-one with students. I find it really rewarding, too, because it helps you remember how cool the stuff you're doing really is. The interns are learning it for the first time, so being able to explain exciting things about the solar system to them for the first time is pretty fun.

What do you usually look for when choosing an intern?

Enthusiasm is a big one. At the undergrad level, most people haven't specialized that much yet; they have pretty similar backgrounds. So I think enthusiasm is usually what I use to identify candidates. Is this what they really want to be doing? Are they actually interested in the science of planets?

What kinds of things do you typically have interns do?

It varies. It can sometimes be repetitive, like looking at a lot of images and looking for differences between them. One of the projects I have a lot of students working on right now is looking at images of craters on the Moon. There's this class of craters on the Moon that we know are really young. By comparing the material excavated by them, we can actually learn about the Moon's subsurface. So I have students going through and looking at how rocky those craters are. We're basically trying to map the subsurface rocks on the Moon. So that can get a little repetitive, but I find that some students actually end up really liking it, and find it kind of relaxing [laughs].

For students who intern with me longer, I try to tailor it to their interests and their skill set. One student, Jose Martinez-Camacho, was really good at numerical modeling and understanding thermodynamics, so he was developing his own models to understand where ice might be stable near the lunar poles.

What's your mentorship philosophy? What do you want students to walk away with?

I think mentors are usually biased in that they want their students to turn out like them. So I'm always excited when my students decide they want to go to grad school, but grad school is not the path for everyone.

One of the important things to learn from doing research is how to solve a problem on your own. A lot of times coursework can be pretty formulaic, and you're learning how to solve one type of problem so that you can solve a similar problem. But with research, unexpected things come up, and you have to learn how to troubleshoot on your own. I think you learn a little bit about that as an intern.

What's the value of JPL internships and fellowships from your perspective?

We're lucky at JPL that we're working on really exciting things. I think we should share that with as many people as possible, and internships are a good way to do that.

Then, for me personally, participating in PSSS solidified that I was on the right path. I knew I wanted to continue to be involved in mission formulation, and that was a big part of why I decided to stay at JPL, to be really deeply involved in the formulation of space missions. There's only a handful of places in the world where you can do that.

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

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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, Mentors, Science, Moon, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, PSSS, Planetary Science Summer School, Careers, Research, Science

  • Kim Orr
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Collage of images of Glenn Orton, Krys Blackwood, Alexandra Holloway and Parag Vaishampayan in their workspaces at JPL

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.

Glenn Orton sits at his desk surrounded by papers and posters of Jupiter and points to his list of interns since 1985

Planetary scientist Glenn Orton points to the list of more than 200 interns he's brought to JPL since 1985. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

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.

Blackwood and Holloway sit on a blue and black checkered floor with whiteboards behind them detailing process flows.

Krys Blackwood (left) and Alexandra Holloway work as a team to mentor students on projects that bring a human focus to robotic technology. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

"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."

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."

Vaishampayan sits in his stark white office holding a laminated award.

Students who intern with Parag Vaishampayan in JPL's Planetary Protection group might have a chance to name bacteria. Here, Vaishampayan holds an award he and his team (including several interns) received for their discovery of a bacterium they named Tersicoccus phoenicis. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

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.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, Mentors, Research, Researchers, STEM, Interns, Juno, Jupiter, Science, Astrobiology, Planetary Protection, Computer Science, Design, Mentoring, Careers

  • Kim Orr
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Brandon Ethridge stands in front of a mural made to look like a blueprint on the Mechanical Design Building at JPL.

Bringing the first samples of Martian rock and soil to Earth requires a multi-part plan that starts with NASA's next Mars rover and would end with a series of never-attempted engineering feats – many of which are still the stuff of imagination. So this past summer, Brandon Ethridge joined a team of other interns at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to bring the concept one step closer to reality. This meant building a small-scale model of something that's never been made before: a vehicle capable of launching off the Martian surface with the precious samples collected by the 2020 Rover in tow and rendezvousing with another spacecraft designed to bring them to Earth. NASA's plans for returning samples from Mars are still early in development and could change. So Ethridge and his team were given a wide berth to dream up new ideas. The project is paving a path not just for Mars exploration, but also for Ethridge himself. Shortly after his internship ended, he graduated from North Carolina A&T State University with a degree in mechanical engineering and accepted a full-time position with the team at JPL that puts spacecraft together and ensures they are working properly. Read on to learn what it's like to envision an entirely new spacecraft for Mars and find out what brought Ethridge to JPL as a first-generation college student.

What are you working on at JPL?

I am working on creating a concept model for a possible future Mars ascent vehicle that would bring samples collected by the Mars 2020 Rover back to Earth. This would be the first time that we would bring samples back from Mars.

NASA is still discussing how we would bring these samples back to Earth, so we're exploring a concept that would be conducted in three stages. The first stage would be to collect the samples and bring them to the Mars ascent vehicle. The second stage would be to use the Mars ascent vehicle to launch into Mars orbit. And the third stage would be to take the spacecraft from orbit back to Earth. I'm primarily working on the second stage. Specifically, I'm working on creating a model of the mechanism that would launch the Mars ascent vehicle from the surface into orbit.

Infographic showing 5 engineering facts about the Mars 2020 rover
Infographic showing 5 engineering facts about the Mars 2020 rover

This infographic shows how the Mars 2020 rover differs from previous Mars rovers. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Learn more

What are the challenges of creating a model of something like this since it's never been done before?

That's definitely one of the challenges. A lot of it is speculation due to our not knowing all the conditions associated with launching anything from another planet. The concept that we're working with is a brand-new design with minimal references, so we're kind of figuring it out as we go. Our group of interns is working to scale down the preliminary design that we got from the engineers to see if it will work on a smaller scale. Then, obviously, you have to account for the changes between Earth and Mars. Even just getting the designs from the engineers has been a struggle, because they're just figuring it out as well.

What's your average day like?

I work with four other interns, and we have two mentors. We've gotten a couple benchmark concepts from the engineers. We're all working to analyze different concepts, comparing and contrasting, and trying to figure out what we think would be best.

Right now, we're in the analysis stage, where we are whittling things down to one specific concept that we want to work towards. We're trying to isolate the exact architecture of the launch mechanism itself, trying to all get on the same page, make sure our numbers match up, and see if we can even theoretically do this. It seems pretty promising – we just have to iron out the kinks.

What's it like working on a team of interns?

We all get along really well, and we're typically all on the same page. We have extroverted personalities, introverted personalities, but we all do pretty well at taking our time to let everyone get their opinions in, so it's a really good team. We bring different perspectives, different specialties. I am very thankful to have a good group of people to work with and fantastic mentors who really let us express ourselves and learn in the process.

How are you working with the engineers who are designing the concepts for this potential future mission?

We're working parallel to them rather than in conjunction with them, which is interesting because they're looking at it as more of a long-term project. Since I'm only here for the 10-week period, my mentors wanted to make sure that I got something out of this. So we're going to scale down the model to expedite the process. Hopefully at the end, we'll be able to present it to the engineers while they're still ironing out their kinks. But it's geared on a tight timeframe, a lot of quick learning.

What are you studying in school?

I am studying mechanical engineering with a concentration in aerospace.

How did you get into that field?

I think it was in middle school that I caught myself always staring at the planes in the sky. I recognized that I really wanted to fly. I wanted to be a pilot for a long time. But then, as I got a little bit older, I recognized that even the pilots aren't familiar with how the planes work exactly or the process that gets them there. I was just fascinated with the phenomenon in itself, where you can take this massive vehicle made of metal and make it appear lighter than air. So I decided to study engineering. I didn't really have any guidance toward it. It just happened that I liked planes, I looked into career options online and that lead me toward engineering and aerospace.

Is anyone else in your family involved in STEM?

No. I'm a first-generation college student. My brother-in-law is a civil engineering professor at Morgan State, and he's helped me a lot. He has been my mentor from the beginning. We don't talk all the time, but he's the one who kind of set me in a direction and told me, "All right, time to go."

How did you find out about the JPL internship and decide to apply?

I got an email one day before an info session was happening on my campus at North Carolina A&T. I had a class at that time, so I didn't think I was going to go, but the class ended early. I ended up attending the info session and speaking with Jenny Tieu and Roslyn Soto [who manage JPL's HBCU initiative]. I brought a resume, and Roslyn critiqued it for me and told me, "You have good experience. Resubmit this with these changes and see how it goes." That's how it worked out.

Did you have any idea that you wanted to come to JPL at some point?

I didn't even know what JPL was, if I'm honest. When I first saw the email, I read, "Jet Propulsion Laboratory," and I thought, "Oh, this sounds interesting." Then I was like, "Wait, this is NASA!" Coming from not knowing or learning about it growing up or being familiar with it, you kind of have to figure things out as you go. It's a little embarrassing to say that I'm here and I didn't even know about this place about a year ago. But at the same time, I figured it out and that's kind of how it goes. Just learn as you go.

What has been your impression of JPL so far?

I love it here. I've been working since I was legally able to work, and this is the first time I've ever enjoyed my job. I'm a night person, but I'm waking up early perfectly fine – not complaining about it, not having bad days. Every day, it's been really good for me. That's something that I don't take for granted, because I've worked jobs that I didn't like in the past. Being out here, being around the people at JPL, it's a really cool experience. It's also my first time away from the East Coast, so I'm just completely thrown into it. I love it. It's been a really great experience.

What's your ultimate career goal?

It's hard for me to say for sure because I have a lot of aspirations. I love the idea of continuing to work with NASA, working on things that are going to space and potentially getting into some of the human space flight projects going on. But I'm also very interested in management positions, maybe learning about some of the business side. Right now, I'm just taking all the experiences for what they are. I know that I want to be in and around aerospace, but as far as in what capacity – whether that's aerodynamics, systems engineering, mechanical engineering – I'm still trying to figure that out.

How do you feel you're contributing to NASA and JPL missions and science?

If we can finish our project by the end of the summer – which would kind of be impressive in itself – and prove that our design does work and is capable of being scaled up to use for an actual Mars ascent vehicle, then I'm sure that would be valuable. Not to mention, I'm learning a lot while I'm here, understanding a lot more and familiarizing myself with everything. So hopefully I can contribute in the future, too.

How does it feel to be working on something that could go to another planet and has never been tried before?

Honestly, it's somewhat unreal to be working on something that's so important and so new. It's not monotonous work. It's not like you're just punching numbers. Everything that I'm working on has the potential to be implemented in some sense for the very first time on another planet. That's something that makes me excited to go to work every day.

Speaking of historic missions: If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon or on to Mars, what would your dream role be?

I would love to go. But if our launcher mechanism works, there's no reason we couldn't use it for applications on the Moon or on Mars. I also really like the idea of being in mission control, working with the astronauts, working with the Space Station or Gateway in the future.

Have you ever considered applying to be an astronaut?

Only recently. It's one of those things that if you don't grow up with it in your scope, you don't acknowledge it as a possibility. It's just something that doesn't really seem attainable.

Throughout my college career and my life, I've been realizing that almost anything is attainable. It's just going to take time and effort. So [being an astronaut] is something that I was actually looking into last night, and recently, I was having a discussion with my mentors about it. It's definitely something that I think I'll try to do.

What inspired you to start looking into being an astronaut?

I have always had a fascination with the natural world and been enamored with the night sky. Becoming an astronaut had never been on my radar as a possibility, but seeing the world from a perspective beyond its surface is what motivated me to want to become a pilot, which eventually materialized into pursuing engineering. Once I did research and recognized that astronauts really are regular people with similar interests to mine, I began looking into it as a possibility.

Also, the idea of seeing these worlds for myself is something that I can't really get past.

What's been the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience that you've had during your internship?

Probably the fact that everything is just open to you. The work going on at my previous internship was only shared on a need-to-know basis. Here, everyone is very open to telling you what they're doing. They're open to showing you what's going on, all the brand-new things being built. You can just walk around and look at them. It makes it so much more exciting to be here because it's not that you're just placed on one project and stuck with it. It's, "Please explore." They encourage it. "Please come learn and experience everything."

You recently accepted a full-time position at JPL. Congrats! What is the position and what will you be working on?

Thank you! I am thrilled for the opportunity. I will be working in the Flight Systems Engineering, Integration & Test Section. Interestingly, I am not sure which group I will be in yet, because I was offered the position on the spot, at the conclusion of a day of interviews. I was told by my section manager that they are unsure which group I will work in specifically but that they want me to be a part of their team for sure. The plan is for me to start in June 2020.

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

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, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Mars Sample Return, HBCU, Students, Careers, Mars 2020 Interns, Perseverance, Black History Month

  • Kim Orr
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Marleen Sundgaard stands on gravel in a tall room with a test version of the InSight Mars lander behind her.

Marleen Sundgaard laughs when she recalls the details of one of her two internships at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory before she was eventually hired in 2016. "I counted rocks for an entire summer," she says. As one of the interns tasked with scouting out the landing site for the Phoenix mission to Mars, it was a tedious but important task – one that helped the spacecraft land safely on the Red Planet. These days, as the testbed lead for the InSight Mars lander and a future mission designed to orbit a metal asteroid, she's still making sure that spacecraft "stick their landings." But instead of counting rocks, she's working as a trainer of sorts for spacecraft, testing and practicing their every move, looking for issues that might arise and sometimes troubleshooting in a simulated environment millions of miles away from the real thing. Returning intern Evan Kramer caught up with Sundgaard to learn more about her work as a JPL testbed engineer and how she hopes to set foot on Mars one day.

What do you do at JPL?

I am the testbed lead for the InSight Mars lander mission. We have a testbed here at JPL that has engineering models of the lander, the arm and all the instruments on InSight. I'm also the system testbed lead for the Psyche mission, which is going to explore a metal asteroid.

What does it mean to be the testbed lead and does your role vary between the two missions?

They are very different, yeah. For the InSight testbed, we use the lander engineering model to test out all the sequences that use the arm and the instruments here on Earth before we try them on the surface of Mars. For example, when we were deploying the instruments at the beginning of the mission, we did a lot of testing to see what the arm would do when we picked up the instruments off the spacecraft deck, swung them around to the front, and then set them down at different tilt angles. During testing, we found that if we put an instrument down on an increasingly tilted surface, our placement error would increase. So we had to account for that when we were deploying onto tilts on Mars. In the testbed, we also have weight models of the instruments that we're using for deployment. Because Mars has 38 percent of the gravity of Earth, all the instruments deployed in the testbed need to match the weight they would be on Mars because the arm was built for Mars' gravity. To make things a little bit more realistic, we also have two cameras on the arm of the InSight testbed lander that are flight spares from the Curiosity rover. During testing, we used these cameras for analysis of what it would look like when we were actually deploying the instruments on the surface so when we got the pictures back from Mars, we could make sure they all looked right.

For the Psyche mission [which launches in 2022], our testbed is going to be mostly just computer racks. It's just computer racks, electronics boxes and instruments. We don't have any surface stuff because we're orbiting Psyche, so there's really no lab where we can kind of get our hands dirty. It's just going to be a lot of computer simulations and testing sequences through the computer systems on Psyche.

You mentioned sequences. Those are the commands that we will send from Earth to the spacecraft?

Yes. So the spacecraft team writes sequences, the arm team writes sequences, and the instruments teams write sequences. They bundle them all up into one big command load, and then we beam those up to Mars using the Deep Space Network.

What's your average day like?

There was a period of time when I was full-time on InSight, where we were doing a lot of the instrument-deployment testing, and we had a lot of test cases we needed to get done. The deployment team designed the test, the arm team wrote the sequences for the test, and then the testbed team prepared the test. What I mean by preparing is if the deployment team needed to set an instrument down on a 10-degree tilt, we would come into the testbed, and we would build that 10-degree tilt for testing the following day. We also tilted the lander itself. Every time we tilt the lander, we have to stow the arm. So we would stow the arm, move the lander around, un-stow the arm and then recalibrate the metrology cameras. Recalibrating the metrology cameras is important because they are what we use to precisely map a 3D space in our testbed. That's how we keep track of where we are in the testbed and where the ground is.

What is the ultimate goal of what you work on?

To do a lot of the work we want to do on Mars, we need to practice. Most of what we are doing has never been done before, so there are a lot of teams involved in these practice sessions. I try to keep them all on the same page. So many pieces of the science and engineering for these missions come together in the testbed. And those pieces will go on to be actual commands and sequences we run on Mars. We want to make sure we send sequences that have been perfected. There has been a lot of hard work and sweat put in by hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and they are relying on us to complete our part of the puzzle.

Sundgaard describes her role in preparing InSight for what became a successful landing in November 2018 and shares what it means to her to be a part of the mission. Credit: NASA | Watch on YouTube

You first came to JPL as an intern. What was that experience like?

My first summer here at JPL, I was a Space Grant intern from Washington state. Me and about 11 other students worked for Andrew Gray in the Mission Architecture Group. Our task was to take a technical paper called "Safe on Mars" and figure out how you would implement all the steps it said would be required to land humans on Mars. We had to create a mission that would help us understand the surface of Mars and determine whether it was safe to send humans there. So we checked for toxins in the soil, and we designed a weather station and three landers that were based on the same design as the Phoenix Mars lander (which is also what InSight is based on). We simulated landing the spacecraft in two different areas of Mars and did all of our testing. The second mission we designed was called Spheres. It consisted of three big inflatable balloons that we would land on the surface of Mars. The balloons had a tube in the middle that could take instruments down and bring samples back up.

My project during my second summer at JPL is the one that gets the most laughs because I tell people that I counted rocks for the entire summer. We were trying to determine the probability of the Phoenix lander hitting a boulder upon landing. So we took a lot of Mars Global Surveyor images and determined that any objects that were a pixel wide were meter-wide boulders. Then we just counted pixels – thousands and thousands and thousands of pixels. That was an interesting summer. It was me and three other guys. So there were four of us on the team, just counting rocks to really nail down the probabilities.

Sundgaard on the left in a green and yellow sweater laughs with Matt Golombek while both sit at a table with computers and water bottles

Sundgaard with her mentor, Matt Golombek, during her second internship at JPL. Image Courtesy: Marleen Sundgaard | + Expand image

What brought you to JPL for your internships?

As a kid I had a fascination with space, but I went to a really, really small high school. My graduating class was 48 kids – we were out in the boonies of Eastern Washington. I was a migrant farmer. I would go to Mexico every year, so I missed a lot of school. I was kind of behind in that sense. I got really good grades, but my high-school math only went up to pre-calculus, so my senior year, when I should have taken calculus, I just took an independent math study course. When I entered college, I was already a quarter behind. I don't think I really realized what JPL was till I got into college. Pathfinder had landed and then they launched the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, so it was kind of a big thing in the news at the time. I remember thinking, "I really want to work at JPL." So I applied for an internship, and I got it. There weren't a lot of places I wanted to work that summer. It was my third summer internship, but my first at JPL.

What moments or memories from your internships stand out most?

During my second summer internship, the four of us interns in the geology group got the chance to lead the Mars Exploration Rovers geology team for a week. Two interns took the Opportunity rover for a week and another intern and I took the Spirit rover for a week. We basically did all of the geology work for that one week on Mars. It was the summer of 2005, so the rovers had only been there for about a year. I remember we were naming rocks after ice-cream flavors. It was a lot of fun. That was probably my favorite week because I felt like I was really contributing to doing science on Mars.

How did your internships shape your career path and lead to what you're doing now?

I think having the internships really gave me a leg up when I was applying for jobs after college. They saw that I had research experience and work experience. When I graduated from the University of Washington in 2006, JPL wasn't hiring, so I went to work at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, doing assembly, test and launch operations, or ATLO, for satellites. I realized I really liked working with hardware and with my hands and on the actual equipment that would go to space. It gave me something to reach for later in my career, knowing that eventually JPL would start hiring again. I wanted to put myself in a position where getting a job at JPL wasn't going to be too much of a stretch.

Have you had your own interns?

Yeah, the testbed group had one intern last year. She wrote some scripts and helped us work some of the tests we were running. She was a lot of help. It was nice to show her the ropes here in the testbed and let her run stuff on the computers and run sequences.

What was your mentorship style?

We took her everywhere with us. She never really sat at her desk – she didn’t really have a desk. If we were going to a meeting, she came with us. If we were going to lunch, she came with us. If we're going to the testbed, she came with us. If we were going to super boring stuff that we didn't think she'd like, she still came with us. We wanted her to get the full experience of what we do here at JPL. She even came in and worked overnight with us in the testbed.

What's your advice for those looking to intern or work at JPL one day?

If you want to intern at JPL, you have to apply. A lot of people don't think they'll get an offer, but they don't even give it a try. We're looking for a lot of different types of people here at JPL. Trust us and yourself. We want people with a big passion for space who are willing to go the extra mile to make sure the work gets done and done correctly. You don't have to have a perfect SAT score or GPA to work here.

Now for the fun question: If you could play any role in NASA's mission to send humans back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars, what would it be?

I want to be the person stepping on the surface of Mars. When I was younger, my dream was to be the first person on Mars. When I realized that might not happen in my generation, my goal became being the first woman to step on the Moon. Now I'm finding I'm a little bit too young to be the first woman to walk on the Moon and too old to be the first woman to walk on Mars! I'm in that sweet spot – too young and too old at the same time. But, nevertheless, I've applied. I've applied for the Astronaut Corps three times. The first time I applied, I wasn't technically eligible. I had two years of work experience and you needed three as a minimum. The second time I applied was in 2012. The third time was 2016. I haven't been selected, but I have my rejection letters as keepsakes to know that I've tried and that I'm not there yet. When 2020 rolls around, I'll apply again. I would love nothing better than to be able to do the work that I do here on Mars.

This story is part of an ongoing series about the career paths and experiences of JPL scientists, engineers, and technologists who got their start as interns at the Southern California laboratory. › Read more from the series

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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, Engineering, Interns, College, Careers, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, InSight, Hispanic Heritage Month, Where Are They Now

  • Evan Kramer
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Jeff Carlson stands in an open room posing next to an engineering model of the mast for the Mars 2020 rover

It may look cartoonish, but the face of NASA's next Mars rover is serious business for Jeff Carlson. A former intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Carlson is now part of the JPL team tasked with assembling and testing the "head" and "neck" (officially called the Remote Sensing Mast) for the Mars 2020 rover. Carlson jokes that his job is a bit like making and following instructions for assembling IKEA furniture – that is, if the furniture were going to another planet with no option to return for spare parts. With its five cameras that will do everything from guiding the rover to recording ambient sounds to blasting objects with lasers so it can study their chemical composition, the mast will play a key role in the mission's goal of finding evidence for ancient microbial life. Returning JPL intern Evan Kramer met up with Carlson to learn more about his role in readying the rover for its planned February 2021 debut on Mars and about the summer internship that propelled Carlson to where he is now.

What do you do at JPL?

I am a mechanical engineer working on the remote sensing mast for Mars 2020, [NASA's next Mars rover]. The remote sensing mast is the "neck" and the "head" of the rover. Scientifically, it is our vision system for seeing far away and doing remote detecting. So instead of using the drill on the rover to study something up close, the mast uses spectroscopy and lasers to see things that are far away and read their chemical composition.

Four engineers in white garmets stand behind the rover while another stands in front holding out a smartphone to take a selfie

Members of NASA's Mars 2020 project (including Carlson, right) take a moment to capture a selfie after attaching the remote sensing mast to the Mars 2020 rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The mast has lots of instruments on it. On the head, itself, there are five cameras. Two of them are for navigation, [NavCams]. They will guide the rover past obstacles, for example. Then, there are two Mastcam-Zs. On the Curiosity rover, they are called Mastcams. On Mars 2020, they're called Mastcam-Zs, because they have zoom lenses on them. Those cameras will take amazing panorama photographs that we can learn a lot from. Then, we've got SuperCam, which is the big "eyeball." SuperCam shoots a laser that incinerates, or ablates, a far-off target. During that ablation, the camera takes a very quick picture. The color of the flash that the laser makes on the target will be unique to the target's chemical makeup. SuperCam also has a microphone on it, which is new for this mission. It will allow us to hear the wind and the movements of gravel and rocks. And then down on the neck of the remote sensing mast, we've got two wind sensors, 90 degrees apart from each other. One of them is a deployable boom, which can reach out pretty far from the neck and give us measurements of wind direction and velocity. There are also three air temperature sensors, a humidity sensor and a thermal IR sensor. Together, those make up an instrument suite known as MEDA.

What's your role in working with all of these components?

A lot of my time has been devoted to the role of cognizant engineer, which I share with one other person. That's essentially the engineer who's responsible for delivering the hardware to the spacecraft. That includes everything from making sure you have all the nuts and bolts for the assembly – physically counting them and weighing them and recording all the part information and inspection reports – as well as writing the procedures to build everything. So that's like the document that you get with your IKEA furniture that shows how to put the pieces together. Our team is pretty small, so usually, once we've developed these procedures, we go into the cleanroom lab, take the parts and put them all together. On a typical day, I'll usually do a little bit of all of that. And then I provide the oversight to make sure it comes together the way it's supposed to.

See NASA’s next Mars rover quite literally coming together inside a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

You first came to JPL as an intern in summer 2015. What was that experience like?

When I was an intern, I was working on a project that I had no idea existed until I became an intern, and now I can't stop thinking about it. It's called Starshade, and it is a sunflower-shaped device the size of a baseball diamond. It's designed to fly far out in the sky and suppress the light from a distant star so that a space telescope can get a direct image of the planets orbiting the star. Using the same kind of spectroscopy that's in the SuperCam on Mars 2020, scientists can then characterize which elements are in the atmospheres of these planets, called exoplanets. If we could do that, it would be groundbreaking because it could tell us if a distant planet is habitable or maybe even already inhabited.

What part of Starshade were you working on?

The Starshade is made up of two systems, and I was working on both. There's a deployable truss, which is a large hoop that forms the circumference of the giant sunflower shape. That has to fit into a rocket to go up to space. So we needed to figure out how to fit something that can expand out to the size of a baseball diamond into about a four-meter-diameter cylinder. I was working on building and designing that truss structure. The other part was making the sunflower shape so that it suppresses the starlight, and that is in the realm of origami. So I was also working with origami specialists to figure out how to connect this folding object to the truss structure.

What brought you to JPL for your internship?

The first time I ever heard about JPL was when people from the Curiosity rover mission team visited my campus at the University of Colorado Boulder. They talked about the entry, descent and landing process for the mission, and that was the first time I'd ever even really heard about that process.

Seeing the ["7 Minutes of Terror"] video for the first time and hearing how impossible it seems to try to land an SUV-size rover on another planet, I thought, "That's the coolest thing I've ever heard of. I've got to go be a part of that in some way." I didn't even really know or care how I could be helpful. I just knew that's where I wanted to be.

What moments or memories from your internship stand out most?

We were kind of a big intern team. I think there were 13 of us on the Starshade project. There were these days when we would assemble scale models of Starshade. These are enormous carbon-fiber structures that all have to be bonded together with epoxy that you're squirting out of syringes, and it's very hands-on. So all 13 of us were in a kind of assembly line doing this. By the end of the internship, we were competing with each other to see who could do it better, faster, cleaner and all of that. And for me, that was just so fun. I learned a lot about how to work effectively on a team. That's certainly one of the things that makes JPL a special place. No one at JPL would have accomplished what they did without being on an amazing team. That's really the root of our success.

Jeff Carlson stands in the center of a folded metal structure

Carlson poses for a photo in the center of the large hoop that forms the circumference of the Starshade design during his summer internship at JPL in 2015. Image courtesy Jeff Carlson | + Expand image

How did your internship shape your career path and lead to what you're doing now?

When I first started my internship, I thought that what I wanted to do was mostly CAD, [computer-aided design], work, sitting in front of a computer 3D modeling and making drawings. The internship taught me the joys of tinkering with stuff that might go to space. There are so many things to think about, from launch environments to micro-meteoroids to ridiculous temperatures and pressures. It changes the way you think about a problem to be on the formulation side, putting the hardware together. I didn't even know that was a career option for me until I started doing it. My JPL internship really opened my eyes to that. I didn't even know the role that I'm in right now existed.

Did your internship also give you the opportunity to meet people who would potentially become your managers?

Yes. I think one thing that makes JPL really awesome is that if an intern has a really great idea, it doesn't matter that they're a student. They will be listened to with the same openness as if the chief engineer had the same idea. Somebody described JPL to me as a meritocracy, and I think more than any other place I've been, that's true. I've seen it myself. Even as a starting full-time engineer, there are times when I think, “Who am I to suggest this? I don't have as much experience as all these other people.” But I say it because the culture here supports that. And then it affects the way the mission is designed. It changes something important.

Have you had your own interns? If so, what's your mentorship style? What do you hope they take away from the experience?

Yes, I’ve had interns of my own. I tried to emulate my mentors from when I was an intern. Looking back on it now, they are part of what made me really successful – allowing me the freedom to realize that I am smart enough to make decisions. Coming from school, I think interns have this idea that they need to be told what to do because it's like a school assignment. But for some of the tasks that we have going on here, the A, B, and C of getting a job done is not all there is. Sometimes it's up to the intern to determine the path forward. So I try to give my interns enough freedom to make these kinds of decisions. I think the validation that you get from seeing an idea come to fruition is going to make you a much better engineer than if you were just told to do a task and you performed it.

What's your advice for those looking to intern or work at JPL one day?

One thing that was a detriment to me trying to work here was seeing myself as a student, hanging out with adults, or seeing myself as kind of underneath my coworkers. So for an intern in a meeting with other engineers, don't be afraid to speak up, feel confident in the education that you've received.

Lastly, I hear that you write poetry and draw in your free time. Have your experiences at JPL influenced your creative side or vice versa?

Being here has opened my eyes to a lot of things. Since I've started working here, I've opened up more to allow other people's ideas and perspectives to influence my own. Also, JPL encourages creativity. Caltech [which manages JPL for NASA] has an art show every year. I put some pieces in there. I think it's awesome to blend engineering and art. There's also a talent show at JPL every year. I sing in the talent show with a little looper pedal. So JPL encourages and confirms, in my mind, that you don't have to be just an engineer. This is a good place to say, we can do this and that.

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This story is part of an ongoing series about the career paths and experiences of JPL scientists, engineers, and technologists who got their start as interns at the Southern California laboratory. › 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, Engineering, Interns, College, Careers, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Starshade, Mars 2020 Interns, Perseverance, Where Are They Now

  • Evan Kramer
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Jasmine Cameron poses in the viewing gallery of the In-Situ Instruments Laboratory at JPL

There is still a lot of mystery around what exactly causes aurora, the swirling spectacles of light that grace Earth’s southern and northern high-latitude skies. So, this summer, Jasmine Cameron, a JPL intern and computer science major at Howard University, helped push aurora science further by developing an algorithm to detect the phenomena in video taken from a weather balloon. Fellow intern Evan Kramer caught up with Cameron to ask how learning about aurora might help the average person and what it’s like to work with NASA scientists and engineers.

What are you working on at JPL?

My project is in computer science. What we’re trying to do is image aurora, so your northern and southern lights, during the day time. A near-infrared camera goes up on a weather balloon and takes a video of the sky at up to 30 frames per second. It stores the collected data and sends back video containing auroras. What we want to do is develop an efficient, real-time algorithm based on machine learning technology that can identify frames with aurora in them so that we can collect science data about these phenomena. Our algorithm needs to give the scientists as many true-positives, or useful images with auroras in them, as possible so they can better understand what they are. It also needs to fit on the computer aboard the balloon so that it will be power efficient and high performance.

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How might understanding aurora help the average person one day?

Auroras are the result of a complicated interaction between the Sun and Earth. This interaction is a fundamental cosmic process that will affect space weather, which in turn will affect our daily life in terms of radiation exposure, satellite and radio communication, power systems, and so on. Studying aurora could help us better understand and forecast space weather.

What’s a typical day like for you?

I come in and check my email to see if my mentor has sent me any new data to process. Then I’ll get to work on algorithms I think would work as a detection system for identifying the presence of aurora in images. There are a lot of different machine-learning algorithms out there that we can test.

How does the algorithm work?

The algorithm is based on machine learning technology. You create a model with unknown parameters. You then take the data and set it up between training data and testing data. Your training data is a bunch of base images with aurora in them and defined parameters used to detect aurora. Then, you develop the algorithm to look for those parameters in your test data, and it will conclude if there is an aurora or not in each of the test images. Then, you use a validation directory with only true-positives to compare the images in your test data that were identified as having aurora in them to actual aurora images to see how well your algorithm is working. My job is to see what algorithm works the best in identifying aurora in the test images.

Jasmine Cameron sits at her computer at JPL

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Evan Kramer | + Expand image

Did you have to do any research or special preparation before you started on the project?

Yes, I had to read a lot, especially about the motivations behind why we’re doing this work and how we’re going to accomplish our goals. I had to read the technical documentation about different algorithms and different systems that are used to process the images and identify aurora. There’s definitely a lot of reading involved every day, and I frequently ask the people I work with questions.

What’s the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience you’ve had so far?

I got to see different hardware and test beds and even mission control where they control the Deep Space Network, [a system of antennas around the world that are used to communicate with spacecraft]. That was really cool.

What about the people here? What’s the environment like at JPL?

Everybody is kind of a nerd. Usually when I’m talking about my internship experience to friends back home, I have to edit out things I’d normally say because most of them would find it boring, but here I’m frequently asked what I work on in a genuine way. I know I can always ask anyone anything about their project and for help on my own project. It’s a great environment and I’m learning a lot.

How do you feel you’re contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

Just being able to do this type of work on aurora detection – it has never been done before. Being able to contribute to making data collection and analysis more efficient makes scientists’ lives a lot easier and helps us learn more about these phenomena.

If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

A black hole, just to see what happens. I’d want to see how destructive it is and how dark it is.

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

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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: Women in STEM, Internships, Interns, College, Students, Opportunities, Science, Careers, Black History Month, HBCU, Earth Science, Earth

  • Evan Kramer
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