Collage of intern photos that appear in this article

Most years, summertime at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory arrives with an influx of more than 800 interns, raring to play a hands-on role in exploring Earth and space with robotic spacecraft.

Perhaps as exciting as adding NASA to their resumes and working alongside the scientists and engineers they have long admired is the chance to explore the laboratory's smorgasbord of science labs, spacecraft assembly facilities, space simulators, the historic mission control center and a place called the Mars Yard, where engineers test drive Mars rovers.

But this year, as the summer internship season approached with most of JPL's more than 6,000 employees still on mandatory telework, the laboratory – and the students who were offered internships at the Southern California center – had a decision to make.

"We asked the students and the mentors [the employees bringing them in] whether their projects could still be achieved remotely and provide the educational component we consider to be so crucial to these experiences," said Adrian Ponce, deputy section manager of JPL's Education Office, which runs the laboratory's STEM internship programs.

The answer was a resounding yes, which meant the laboratory had just a matter of weeks to create virtual alternatives for every aspect of the internship experience, from accessing specialized software for studying Earth and planetary science to testing and fine-tuning the movements of spacecraft in development and preparing others for launch to attending enrichment activities like science talks and team building events.

“We were able to transition almost all of the interns to aspects of their projects that are telework-compatible. Others agreed to a future start date,” said Ponce, adding that just 2% of the students offered internships declined to proceed or had their projects canceled.

Now, JPL's 600-plus summer interns – some who were part-way through internships when the stay-at-home orders went into effect, others who are returning and many who are first-timers – are getting an extended lesson in the against-the-odds attitude on which the laboratory prides itself.

We wanted to hear about their experiences as JPL's first class of remote interns. What are their routines and home offices like in cities across the country? How have their teams adapted to building spacecraft and doing science remotely? Read a collection of their responses below to learn how JPL interns are finding ways to persevere, whether it's using their engineering skills to fashion homemade desks, getting accustomed to testing spacecraft from 2,000 miles away or working alongside siblings, kids, and pets.


In the image on the left, Jennifer Brag stands in front of a series of observatories. In the image on the right, her bird is pirched on top of open laptop.

Courtesy of Jennifer Bragg | + Expand image

"I am working with an astronomer on the NEOWISE project, which is an automated system that detects near-Earth objects, such as asteroids. The goal of my project is to identify any objects missed by the automated system and use modeling to learn more about their characteristics. My average day consists of writing scripts in Python to manipulate the NEOWISE data and visually vet that the objects in the images are asteroids and not noise or stars.

My office setup consists of a table with scattered books, papers, and pencils, a laptop, television, a child in the background asking a million questions while I work, and a bird on my shoulder that watches me at times."

– Jennifer Bragg will be studying optics at the University of Arizona as an incoming graduate student starting this August. She is completing her summer internship from Pahoa, Hawaii.


Radina Yanakieva poses in front of a model of the Curiosity Mars rover at JPL

Courtesy of Radina Yanakieva | + Expand image

"I'm helping support the Perseverance Mars rover launch this summer. So far, I have been working remotely, but I'm lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to Pasadena, California, in late July to support the launch from JPL! On launch day, I will be in the testbed, where myself and a few other members of my group will be 'shadowing' the spacecraft. This means that when operators send their commands to the actual spacecraft, when it’s on the launch pad and during its first day or so in space, we'll send the same instructions to the test-bed version. This way, if anything goes wrong, we'll have a high-fidelity simulation ready for debugging.

I have a desk in my bedroom, so my office setup is decent enough. I bought a little whiteboard to write myself notes. As for my average working day, it really depends on what I'm doing. Some days, I'm writing procedures or code, so it's a text editor, a hundred internet tabs, and a messenger to ask my team members questions. Other days, I'm supporting a shift in the test bed, so I'm on a web call with a few other people talking about the test we're doing. Luckily, a large portion of my team's work can be done on our personal computers. The biggest change has been adding the ability to operate the test bed remotely. I'm often amazed that from New York, I can control hardware in California.

I was ecstatic that I was still able to help with the Perseverance Mars rover mission! I spent the second half of 2019 working on launch and cruise testing for the mission, so I'm happy to be able to see it through."

– Radina Yanakieva is an undergraduate student studying aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech and interning from Staten Island, New York.


Aditya Khuller stands with his arms outstretched and poses in front of a model Mars rover in a garage at JPL.

Courtesy of Aditya Khuller | + Expand image

"Our team is using radar data [from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft] to find out what lies beneath the large icy deposits on Mars' south pole. My average day consists of analyzing this radar data on my computer to find and map the topography of an older surface that lies below the ice on Mars’ south pole, while my plants look on approvingly.

I was delighted to be offered the chance to work at JPL again. (This is my fourth JPL internship.) Even though it's better to be 'on lab,' it is an honor to get to learn from the coolest and smartest people in the world."

– Aditya Khuller is a graduate student working toward a Ph.D. in planetary science at Arizona State University and interning from Tempe, Arizona.


Breanna Ivey wears a Georgia Tech T-Shirt and poses in front of a river with her arms outstretched on concrete railing.

Courtesy of Breanna Ivey | + Expand image

"I am working on the Perseverance Mars rover mission [launching this summer]. As a member of the mobility team, I am testing the rover's auto-navigation behaviors. If given a specific location, flight software should be able to return data about where that location is relative to the rover. My project is to create test cases and develop procedures to verify the data returned by the flight software when this feature is used.

My average day starts with me eating breakfast with my mom who is also working from home. Then, I write a brief plan for my day. Next, I meet with my mentor to discuss any problems and/or updates. I spend the rest of my day at my portable workstation working on code to test the rover's behaviors and analyzing the data from the tests. I have a mini desk that I either set up in my bedroom in front of my Georgia Tech Buzz painting or in the dining room.

If I could visit in person, the first thing I would want to see is the Mars rover engineering model "Scarecrow." I would love to visit the Mars Yard [a simulated Mars environment at JPL] and watch Scarecrow run through different tests. It would be so cool to see a physical representation of the things that I've been working on."

– Breanna Ivey is an undergraduate student studying electrical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and interning from Macon, Georgia.


Kaelan Oldani wears her graduation gown and holds her cap while posing in front of a sign that reads 'Michigan Union.'

Courtesy of Kaelan Oldani | + Expand image

"I am working on the Psyche mission as a member of the Assembly Test and Launch Operations team, also known as ATLO. (We engineers love our acronyms!) Our goal is to assemble and test the Psyche spacecraft to make sure everything works correctly so that the spacecraft will be able to orbit and study its target, a metal asteroid also called Psyche. Scientists theorize that the asteroid is actually the metal core of what was once another planet. By studying it, we hope to learn more about the formation of Earth.

I always start out my virtual work day by giving my dog a hug, grabbing a cup of coffee and heading up to my family's guest bedroom, which has turned into my office for the summer. On the window sill in my office are a number of space-themed Lego sets including the 'Women of NASA' set, which helps me get into the space-exploration mood! Once I have fueled up on coffee, my brain is ready for launch, and I log in to the JPL virtual network to start writing plans for testing Psyche's propulsion systems. While the ATLO team is working remotely, we are focused on writing test plans and procedures so that they can be ready as soon as the Psyche spacecraft is in the lab for testing. We have a continuous stream of video calls set up throughout the week to meet virtually with the teams helping to build the spacecraft."

– Kaelan Oldani is a master's student studying aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan and interning from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She recently accepted a full-time position at JPL and is starting in early 2021.


In the image on the left, Richardo Isai Melgar poses in front of a model of the Curiosity Mars rover at JPL. In the image on the right, he kneels in front of a model Mars rover in the Mars Yard at JPL.

Courtesy of Ricardo Isai Melgar | + Expand image

"NASA's Deep Space Network is a system of antennas positioned around the world – in Australia, Spain, and Goldstone, California – that's used to communicate with spacecraft. My internship is working on a risk assessment of the hydraulic system for the 70-meter antenna at the Goldstone facility. The hydraulic system is what allows the antenna and dish surrounding it to move so it can accurately track spacecraft in flight. The ultimate goal of the work is to make sure the antenna's hydraulic systems meet NASA standards.

My average day starts by getting ready for work (morning routine), accessing my work computer through a virtual interface and talking with my mentor on [our collaboration tool]. Then, I dive into work, researching hydraulic schematics, JPL technical drawings of the antenna, and NASA standards, and adding to a huge spreadsheet that I use to track every component of the antenna's hydraulic system. Currently, I'm tracking every flexible hydraulic fluid hose on the system and figuring out what dangers a failure of the hose could have on personnel and the mission."

– Ricardo Isai Melgar is an undergraduate student studying mechanical engineering at East Los Angeles College and interning from Los Angeles.


Susanna Eschbach poses in front of a mirrored background.

Courtesy of Susanna Eschbach | + Expand image

"My project this summer is to develop a network of carbon-dioxide sensors to be used aboard the International Space Station for monitoring the levels of carbon dioxide that crewmembers experience.

My 'office setup' is actually just a board across the end of my bed balanced on the other side by a small dresser that I pull into the middle of the room every day so that I can sit and have a hard surface to work on.

At first I wasn't sure if I was interested in doing a virtual engineering internship. How would that even work? But after talking to my family, I decided to accept. Online or in person, getting to work at JPL is still a really cool opportunity."

– Susanna Eschbach is an undergraduate student studying electrical and computer engineering at Northern Illinois University and interning from DeKalb, Illinois.


Izzie Torres poses in front of an ancient pyramid.

Courtesy of Izzie Torres | + Expand image

"I'm planning test procedures for the Europa Clipper mission [which is designed to make flybys of Jupiter's moon Europa]. The end goal is to create a list of tests we can perform that will prove that the spacecraft meets its requirements and works as a whole system.

I was very excited when I got the offer to do a virtual internship at JPL. My internship was originally supposed to be with the Perseverance Mars rover mission, but it required too much in-person work, so I was moved to the Europa Clipper project. While I had been looking forward to working on a project that was going to be launching so soon, Jupiter's moon Europa has always captured my imagination because of the ocean under its surface. It was an added bonus to know I had an internship secured for the summer."

– Izzie Torres is an undergraduate student studying aerospace engineering and management at MIT and interning from Seattle.


Jared Blanchard poses in front of a visualization in the VIVID lab at JPL.

Courtesy of Jared Blanchard | + Expand image

"I am investigating potential spacecraft trajectories to reach the water worlds orbiting the outer planets, specifically Jupiter's moon Europa. If you take both Jupiter and Europa into account, their gravitational force fields combine to allow for some incredibly fuel-efficient maneuvers between the two. The ultimate goal is to make it easier for mission designers to use these low-energy trajectories to develop mission plans that use very little fuel.

I'm not a gamer, but I just got a new gaming laptop because it has a nice graphics processing unit, or GPU. During my internship at JPL last summer, we used several GPUs and a supercomputer to make our trajectory computations 10,000 times faster! We plan to use the GPU to speed up my work this summer as well. I have my laptop connected to a second monitor up in the loft of the cabin where my wife and I are staying. We just had a baby two months ago, so I have to make the most of the quiet times when he's napping!"

– Jared Blanchard is a graduate student working toward a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University.


Yohn Ellis, wearing a suit and tie, poses in front of yellow and gold balloons.

Courtesy of Yohn I. Ellis Jr. | + Expand image

"I'm doing a theory-based project on the topic of nanotechnology under the mentorship of Mohammad Ashtijou and Eric Perez.

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 Space Center Houston on spring break in 2009. It was by far the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed as a youth. When I was offered the internship at JPL, I was excited, challenged, and motivated. There is a great deal of respect that comes with being an NASA intern, and I look forward to furthering my experiences.

But the challenges are prevalent, too. Unfortunately, the internship is completely virtual and there are limitations to my experience. It is hard working at home with the multiple personalities in my family. I love them, but have you attempted to conduct research with a surround system of romantic comedies playing in the living room, war video games blasting grenades, and the sweet voice of your grandmother asking for help getting pans from the top shelf?"

– Yohn I. Ellis Jr. is a graduate student studying electrical engineering at Prairie View A&M University and interning from Houston.


Mina Cezairli wears a NASA hat and poses in front of a landscape of green mountains a turqoise ocean and puffy white and grey clouds.

Courtesy of Mina Cezairli | + Expand image

"This summer, I am supporting the proposal for a small satellite mission concept called Cupid’s Arrow. Cupid’s Arrow would be a small probe designed to fly through Venus’ atmosphere and collect samples. The ultimate goal of the project is to understand the “origin story” of Venus' atmosphere and how, despite their comparable sizes, Earth and Venus evolved so differently geologically, with the former being the habitable, friendly planet that we call home and the latter being the hottest planet in our solar system with a mainly carbon dioxide atmosphere.

While ordinary JPL meetings include discussions of space probes, rockets, and visiting other planets, my working day rarely involves leaving my desk. Because all of my work can be done on my computer, I have a pretty simple office setup: a desk, my computer, and a wall full of posters of Earth and the Solar System. An average day is usually a combination of data analysis, reading and learning about Venus, and a number of web meetings. The team has several different time zones represented, so a morning meeting in Pacific time accommodates all of Pacific, Eastern and European time zones that exist within the working hours of the team."

– Mina Cezairli is an undergraduate student studying mechanical engineering at Yale University and is interning from New Haven, Connecticut.


Izabella Zamora sits on steps leading up to a building with pumpkins decorating the steps to her right.

Courtesy of Izabella Zamora | + Expand image

“I'm characterizing the genetic signatures of heat-resistant bacteria. The goal is to improve the techniques we use to sterilize spacecraft to prevent them from contaminating other worlds or bringing contaminants back to Earth. Specifically, I'm working to refine the amount of time spacecraft need to spend getting blasted by dry heat as a sanitation method.

"As someone who has a biology-lab heavy internship, I was quite skeptical of how an online internship would work. There was originally supposed to be lab work, but I think the project took an interesting turn into research and computational biology. It has been a really cool intersection to explore, and I have gained a deeper understanding of the math and analysis involved in addition to the biology concepts."

– Izabella Zamora is an undergraduate student studying biology and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and interning from Brimfield, Massachusetts.


Leilani Trautman poses for a photo at an outside table. The back of her open laptop has dozens of stickers attached to it, including a NASA meatball.

Courtesy of Leilani Trautman | + Expand image

"I am working on the engineering operations team for the Perseverance Mars rover. After the rover lands on Mars, it will send daily status updates. Every day, an engineer at JPL will need to make sure that the status update looks healthy so that the rover can continue its mission. I am writing code to make that process a lot faster for the engineers.

When I was offered the internship back in November, I thought I would be working on hardware for the rover. Once the COVID-19 crisis began ramping up and I saw many of my friends' internships get cancelled or shortened, I was worried that the same would happen to me. One day, I got a call letting me know that my previous internship wouldn't be possible but that there was an opportunity to work on a different team. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to retain my internship at JPL and get the chance to work with my mentor, Farah Alibay, who was once a JPL intern herself."

– Leilani Trautman is an undergraduate student studying electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and interning from San Diego, California.


Kathryn Chamberlin poses for an outdoor photo in front of a green hedge.

Courtesy of Kathryn Chamberlin | + Expand image

"I am working on electronics for the coronagraph instrument that will fly aboard the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. The Roman Space Telescope will study dark energy, dark matter, and exoplanets [planets outside our solar system]. The science instrument I'm working on will be used to image exoplanets. It's also serving as a technology demonstration to advance future coronagraphs [which are instruments designed to observe objects close to bright stars].

I was both nervous and excited to have a virtual internship. I’m a returning intern, continuing my work on the coronagraph instrument. I absolutely love my work and my project at JPL, so I was really looking forward to another internship. Since I’m working with the same group, I was relieved that I already knew my team, but nervous about how I would connect with my team, ask questions, and meet other 'JPLers.' But I think my team is just as effective working virtually as we were when working 'on lab.' My mentor and I have even figured out how to test hardware virtually by video calling the engineer in the lab and connecting remotely into the lab computer."

– Kathryn Chamberlin is an undergraduate student studying electrical engineering at Arizona State University and interning from Phoenix.


Daniel Stover is shown in a screengrab from a web meeting app pointing to an illustration of the Perseverance Mars rover.

Courtesy of Daniel Stover | + Expand image

"I am working on the flight system for the Perseverance Mars rover. The first half of my internship was spent learning the rules of the road for the entire flight system. My first task was updating command-line Python scripts, which help unpack the data that is received from the rover. After that, I moved on to testing a part of the flight software that manages which mechanisms and instruments the spacecraft can use at a certain time. I have been so grateful to contribute to the Perseverance Mars rover project, especially during the summer that it launches!

I have always been one to be happy with all the opportunities I am granted, but I do have to say it was hard to come to the realization that I would not be able to step foot on the JPL campus. However, I was truly grateful to receive this opportunity, and I have been so delighted to see the JPL spirit translate to the online video chats and communication channels. It's definitely the amazing people who make JPL into the place that everybody admires. Most important, I would like to thank my mentor, Jessica Samuels, for taking the time to meet with me every day and show me the true compassion and inspiration of the engineers at JPL."

– Daniel Stover is an undergraduate student studying electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech and interning from Leesburg, Virginia.


In the image on the left, Sophia Yoo poses for a selfie. In the image on the right, her laptop, mouse, headphones and open notebook are shown at a table outside surrounded by a wooden porch and a green landscape.

Courtesy of Sophia Yoo | + Expand image

"I'm working on a project called the Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols, or MAIA. It's an instrument that will go into lower Earth orbit and collect images of particulate matter to learn about air pollution and its effects on health. I'm programming some of the software used to control the instrument's electronics. I'm also testing the simulated interface used to communicate with the instrument.

I was ecstatic to still have my internship! I'm very blessed to be able to do all my work remotely. It has sometimes proven to be a challenge when I find myself more than four layers deep in virtual environments. And it can be confusing to program hardware on the West Coast with software that I wrote all the way over here on the East Coast. However, I've learned so much and am surprised by and grateful for the meaningful relationships I've already built."

– Sophia Yoo is an incoming graduate student studying electrical and computer engineering at Princeton University and is interning from Souderton, Pennsylvania.


Natalie Maus can be seen in the right corner of the image as she looks at a graph on her laptop.

Courtesy of Natalie Maus | + Expand image

"My summer research project is focused on using machine-learning algorithms to make predictions about the density of electrons in Earth’s ionosphere [a region of the planet's upper atmosphere]. Our work seeks to allow scientists to forecast this electron density, as it has important impacts on things such as GPS positioning and aircraft navigation.

Despite the strangeness of working remotely, I have learned a ton about the research process and what it is like to be part of a real research team. Working alongside my mentors to adapt to the unique challenges of working remotely has also been educational. In research, and in life, there will always be new and unforeseen problems and challenges. This extreme circumstance is valuable in that it teaches us interns the importance of creative problem solving, adaptability, and making the most out of the situation we are given."

– Natalie Maus is an undergraduate student studying astrophysics and computer science at Colby College and interning from Evergreen, Colorado.


Lucas Lange wears hiking gear and poses next to an American Flag at the top of a mountain with a valley visible in the background.

Courtesy of Lucas Lange | + Expand image

"I have two projects at JPL. My first project focuses on the Europa Clipper mission [designed to make flybys of Jupiter's moon Europa]. I study how the complex topography on the icy moon influences the temperature of the surface. This work is crucial to detect 'hot spots,' which are areas the mission (and future missions) aim to study because they might correspond to regions that could support life! My other work consists of studying frost on Mars and whether it indicates the presence of water-ice below the surface.

JPL and NASA interns are connected through social networks, and it's impressive to see the diversity. Some talks are given by 'JPLers' who make themselves available to answer questions. When I came to JPL, I expected to meet superheroes. This wish has been entirely fulfilled. Working remotely doesn't mean working alone. On the contrary, I think it increases our connections and solidarity."

– Lucas Lange is an undergraduate student studying aerospace engineering and planetary science at ISAE-SUPAERO [aerospace institute in France] and interning from Pasadena, California.


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, Virtual Internships, Telework, Mars 2020 interns, Mars 2020, Perseverance, DSN, Deep Space Network, Mars, Asteroids, NEOWISE, Science, Technology, Engineering, Computer Science, Psyche, International Space Station, ISS, Europa, Jupiter, Europa Clipper, trajectory, nanotechnology, Cupid's Arrow, Proposal, Venus, Planetary Protection, Biology, Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, Dark Matter, Exoplanets, Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols, MAIA, Earth, Earth science, air pollution, Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

  • Kim Orr
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Samalis Santini De Leon poses for a photo with a jar of lucky peanuts in JPL's Space Flight Operations Center.

They've been called the minutes of terror – the moments during which spacecraft perform a series of seemingly impossible maneuvers to get from the top of Mars' atmosphere down to its surface and mission controllers anxiously await the signal heralding a successful landing. This past summer, it was intern Samalis Santini De Leon's task to make sure that when NASA's next Mars rover lands in February 2021, those minutes are as terror-free as possible. That meant bringing her Ph.D. research on the process known as entry, descent and landing, or EDL, to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she could apply it to a real space mission. The Puerto Rico native says she never imagined she would one day play a key role in landing a spacecraft on the Red Planet – especially as an intern. But now that she's worked on the Mars 2020 mission, she'll be just as anxious as the rest of the team when those final minutes arrive. We caught up with the Texas A&M University student to find out how you test a Mars landing while on Earth and how she set herself on a trajectory to NASA.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing simulations. I'm evaluating different scenarios, such as a hardware failure, and I'm trying to assess whether the mission will still land safely on Mars. I'm making sure that the system is robust enough that even if something goes wrong, the mission is not in danger and can still land safely. After all that work, we want the rover to land in one piece and do the science we want to do.

What does entry, descent and landing entail?

It's a series of events and maneuvers required to land safely on a planet. So once you enter the atmosphere, there are things you have to do – steps to ensure that the vehicle lands safely.

Graphic showing how Mars 2020 will land on the Red Planet

This graphic shows the new technology that will be used to land the Mars 2020 rover in February 2021. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Take an interactive look at the Mars 2020 landing

What's different about this landing from the one used for NASA's Curiosity Mars rover?

One difference is that we have a new trigger for deploying the spacecraft's parachute. This trigger will help reduce the landing footprint size, meaning we can land closer to the intended landing spot. The mission will also be using Terrain Relative Navigation for the first time. The rover will take images of the surface as it's descending and compare them to its onboard reference maps so it can locate itself with respect to the landing site and avoid any hazards.

What's your average day like?

It's mostly gathering all the concerns from other people on the entry, descent and landing team. Then I run simulations, and I look at the overall behavior of the system and communicate with the teams about what's happening. For example, if there was a hardware concern, I would do simulations to analyze the system's performance and ensure there's no significant effect on the success of the mission.

On the side, I'm doing my Ph.D. work in entry, descent and landing, using artificial intelligence to help analyze very large simulations and communicate critical issues to the experts. As humans, there is only so much we can analyze manually. We hope that these tools can help engineers for future missions.

Santini De Leon sits in the Space Flight Operations center at JPL in a room with red and blue lighting and looks up at a screen showing live spacecraft communications.

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

What lead you to focus on entry, descent and landing for your Ph.D.?

I have no idea. [Laughs.] I did my undergraduate work in mechanical engineering back in Puerto Rico, where I'm from. I volunteered on a project run by Space Grant, building experiments that involved launching sounding rockets from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. I started to get into space at that time. After that, I tried to pursue aerospace engineering, which is not a possibility in Puerto Rico. So I left Puerto Rico, and I ended up initially working with satellites. Then my advisor said, "I have a friend in EDL, and he's talked about the challenges. Why don't we write a proposal on this?" I got a NASA Science and Technology Research Fellowship for that, and now I'm doing EDL. I was always secretly leaning towards space exploration and getting my hands on a mission.

What made you want to study mechanical engineering initially?

I think it was the closest I could get to aerospace engineering back home. Also, space is very interdisciplinary. I always liked robots. Building robots in high school for competitions got me very interested in that.

What brought you to JPL for this internship?

This is my first summer at JPL. With my fellowship, I do rotations at the NASA centers, so I work with people who do similar stuff.

How many different NASA centers have you interned at now?

I've interned at three. I did two summers at NASA's Ames Research Center, last summer at Langley Research Center, now here at JPL. And in my Space Grant project and undergrad, I did frequent visits to Wallops to put our experiments in the rockets, so that was very cool.

That was all part of the buildup to get here. Coming from an island, it seemed not even possible at the time [that I would ever be at NASA].

What were the challenges that you faced coming from Puerto Rico and trying to pursue aerospace engineering?

The options for aerospace engineering in Puerto Rico are limited. But getting into the Space Grant program was a very good thing to expose me to those fields. After that, the hard part was trying to find a place to do my graduate studies outside of Puerto Rico – where to go, how to get in. There's not a lot of orientation back in Puerto Rico about these things, so you're a little bit on your own. After that, the big problem is dealing with grad school. [Laughs.]

What's your ultimate career goal? Do you think you'd like to go back to Puerto Rico someday?

I would definitely like to continue working on space missions for a while. Whether it's here at JPL or other NASA centers. Just the exposure and the experience – nothing can compare to that. But at some point later on, I would like to go back and consider teaching at the University of Puerto Rico to bring back what I've learned. They're trying to make an aerospace department at the university, so I could bring new perspectives and maybe motivate more people to do what I'm doing.

Speaking of future careers: If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars, what would you want to do?

Maybe I'm biased now that I'm in EDL, but it's one of the biggest challenges. I think getting enough knowledge and expertise in it and playing a role in landing people on the Moon or on Mars would be incredible, because it's a problem we still haven't found a solution to. Being able to help achieve that by whatever means is probably the most amazing thing I could ever do.

What do you hope to accomplish in your role on the Mars 2020 mission?

I definitely want to demonstrate that they've built an amazing system – that it works. I guess the goals are more personal, like getting exposure to the testing side of things, more of the real-life aspects. I'm more locked on the computer simulations. So I'm hoping to get the whole picture of how EDL works and how it all comes together.

Your mentor is Allen Chen, who is the lead for Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing, so he'll be calling the shots on landing day. What is it like having him as a mentor?

It's amazing. I feel very lucky and very proud that I get to work directly with him. He's someone who has so much expertise. I am learning a lot from him. Just sitting in meetings and hearing what he and the team have to say is amazing. He's great, too – easy to talk to, knows way too much about EDL. [Laughs.]

What's been the most unique experience that you've had at JPL this summer?

What I've found the most shocking is seeing the actual rover that's going to Mars and seeing the rover getting built. That has definitely been quite cool. I think JPL is known for stuff like this. It's here that you can see it and you can see the progress. It also seems like a very collaborative environment. That's not common, so that's really cool.

The rover is scheduled to land in February 2021, after your internship has ended. Will you be able to come back to JPL for landing?

It is possible. My mentor [for my Ph.D.] will definitely be here when the rover arrives on Mars. He'll actually spend two months here doing shifts in mission control. He told me he will try to have me here for that to learn about how it all works. I will definitely try to make that happen. The excitement in that room and the fear will collide. It must be very interesting to be in there.

Are you already picturing what it will be like on landing day?

Yeah. Now that I've had some role in it, wherever I am – whether it's here or at home – I'm going to be freaking out. Regardless of how confident we are, it's a challenging process.


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, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Ph.D., Doctorate, Space Grant, Students, Mars 2020 Interns, Perseverance, Hispanic Heritage 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.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of 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, Engineering, Interns, College, Careers, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, InSight, Hispanic Heritage Month

  • Evan Kramer
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Isabel Rayas holds a spare rover wheel while posing in front of a rover parked in a garage

A single movement of NASA's next Mars rover could require, among other things, the careful dance of six independently motored wheels, a retractable arm containing a laboratory's worth of tools, a swiveling head supporting multiple cameras and a computer that can pinpoint the rover's precise location. So this past summer, while other teams and their interns at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory were testing cameras and calibrating science instruments to prepare the rover for its February 2021 debut on Mars, intern Isabel Rayas was making sure all those pieces move seamlessly together. This meant spending a lot of time in the laboratory's Mars Yard, a sandbox of sorts where engineers put models of the rover through various test drives. For Rayas, a graduate student studying computer science and robotics at the University of Southern California, it was also a window into one potential future career, although, she says, "I'm definitely still exploring." We chatted with Rayas to learn more about her role on the Mars 2020 mission and what it's like to drive a rover.

What are you working on at JPL?

I am working on mobility testing for the Mars 2020 rover. It's taking all of these parts that impact something like mobility – the motion of the rover – and understanding how they work together. We're testing everything to make sure that all the parts play nicely together and that one of them doesn't have a bug that's going to cause a failure in another part of the system.

Are you working on the actual rover that's going to Mars?

There's a whole spectrum of testbeds. What you're testing will dictate which testbed you use. If you're only trying to test one small part of the rover, you're not going to bother using the full system. The flight software testbed, where I'm working, has the real flight computer. It has some of the real cameras. It doesn't have the real motors yet, but we're working on it. Assembly, Test and Launch Operations, or ATLO, is actually putting together the real thing and doing tests with the real hardware.

Tell me more about your role in the flight software testbed.

There are two main things that I am working on this summer: One of them is getting all the hardware pieces in the flight software testbed that impact the mobility of the rover.

You might think that mobility is just the wheels of the rover, but there are a lot of subsystems and instruments that have an influence on mobility. There is an instrument called RIMFAX that will be used for radar sounding. It will point at the Martian surface to collect readings of what the subterranean surface looks like and what it's made up of. You wouldn't necessarily think that has an impact on mobility, but it actually does, because you have to know exactly where you are when you take a radar sounding in order to make any sense of it. You have to be able to tell, "I've moved this far, and this is what I'm sounding, and that's what the ground looks like at this specific spot." So that's a piece of hardware that needs to be integrated into a full mobility test. Then there's the flight computer. There's a computer just for processing the images from the rover. That's also not in the testbed yet, so that's something I'm trying to get delivered so we can run tests with it.

Once we get all these hardware parts into the testbed, we want to run a mobility sequence that tells the motors to move while doing all of these tasks to make sure the system works. So I'm writing the procedure and making sure that all the parts are in the testbed for that.

The second thing I'm working on is in the Mars Yard. While we do test drives around the Mars Yard, we want to know precisely where the rover is located, because we want to be able to know whether or not the autonomous system that tells the rover where it is works. So I'm looking at different systems that will help us do those tests.

What is your average day like?

There's no good answer to that. It changes day by day, which is exciting. This morning, for example, I was in the Mars Yard learning about a position tracking system with someone who was setting it up to do a test. As a systems engineer, you have to go to a lot of meetings, because you have to learn from different teams about what's going on and go over test procedures. I compile all the information from the meetings, try to understand it and meet with more people to get questions answered. I'm in and out of the office. I'm in the Mars Yard. I'm in the testbed, in the cleanroom – all kinds of stuff.

Isabel Rayas kneels down in front of the Scarecrow rover in a garage and places her hand on one of the front wheels

Rayas examines one of the Scarecrow rover's wheels. Scarecrow is a simplified version of a Mars rover that's used for testing maneuvers on a simulated Red Planet terrain at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

You mentioned your project deals with systems engineering. What's the job of a systems engineer?

You do a little of everything. For the rover, you have people designing the wheels, and you have people designing the instruments. Those people have to be experts in that thing and understand exactly how it works and make sure that nothing's going to break. While those people are experts in a specific part of the system, they can't be expected to also understand how everything comes together and how that impacts the whole system. So that's where systems engineers come in. They are not experts in any one of the areas, but they have to understand enough about each of them to know how they impact each other.

Is that what you are studying in school?

No. I just finished my first year of grad school at the University of Southern California, studying computer science and robotics. I got my undergrad in aerospace engineering from MIT, so I have previous experience in aerospace, but I haven't taken any systems engineering classes. My senior capstone had a systems engineering project, and I got exposure to it there, but we had maybe 100 requirements for our project, and here there are tens of thousands. It's a little bit of a step up.

What got you into aerospace engineering?

I think this is maybe true of most kids, but I really liked looking at the stars and thinking about the planets. I knew from a very young age that I was interested in STEM. I took an astronomy class in high school that I loved, and I thought I wanted to do astrophysics, but when I got to college, I took a physics class and didn't like it at all. I switched to the closest thing that wasn't science, which was aerospace engineering.

I also minored in brain and cognitive sciences, because I really couldn't decide. I took some computer science classes during college as well. So I've been kind of all over the place, and I ended up here again.

What made you focus on computer science and robotics for grad school?

My undergrad was in aerospace, but with a concentration in autonomous systems. I've always been interested in the robotic applications of aerospace – not necessarily the rocket design, or propulsion, or the aerodynamics or anything like that.

What brought you to JPL for this internship?

I actually interned here two years ago. My friend had interned at JPL the year before, and she was like, "This was awesome. I love it so much." As an aerospace major, it's kind of the dream, right? So I ended up coming here two years ago. Now that I'm at USC, it's so close that I thought I could probably find some way to be here again this summer, doing something new that's not really related to my program at school.

What's the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience that you've had here?

My first day was right after the Explore JPL event, so thousands of people had come through that weekend to learn about what JPL does and see all the different labs and technology. They had brought the Scarecrow rover, [used to test Mars rover drives], down to the entrance of JPL so people could see it move around. When I got here on Monday, it was my mentor's job to bring it back to the Mars Yard, which is all the way down the street, up the hill – not close at all. So he was like, "Do you want to move the rover across the Lab?"

We had to pick up the rover with a crane and drive it across lab. People were taking videos of us as we went by. After that, my mentor was like, "Do you want to drive it around the Mars Yard?" So I got to drive it around for a while. That was something that I think is kind of unique.

What do you hope to accomplish during your time here?

I would really like to see this test procedure run. I have high hopes. Ten weeks [at JPL] is such a short amount of time. I think it would be easy to get caught up in a lot of things that are less important and end up having something half-finished. I know from talking to my mentor that a test that includes all of this hardware could be really valuable, because it would help the team find bugs before they're too late to fix. Knowing that's my responsibility is exciting. It's a little bit scary, but in a good way.

What's your ultimate goal for your career?

I'm not really sure yet. I'm definitely still exploring. I think internships are a great way to do that, so I'm planning on doing as many as I can in as many different fields as I can. Beyond that, I think my overarching career goal is to keep learning. I don't know where that will take me.

Speaking of future careers: If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars in the near future, what would it be?

Wow. That's tough. I would love to be one of the people who goes to the Moon. I don't think I would want to go to Mars.

Why not?

It's too far. I like Earth a lot. It's probably my favorite planet. So I wouldn't want to get too far from home. But I would love to go to space. Going to the Moon would be a nice, happy medium.

Have you ever thought about applying to be an astronaut?

Not seriously. I wanted to be an astronaut for the first couple of years in college. But I thought about it some more and about how much training you have to do, and I didn't want to dedicate all my time to training. I thought I could use engineering instead to help us get there.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of 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, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Computer Science, Mars 2020 Interns, Perseverance, Hispanic Heritage Month

  • Kim Orr
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Jose Martinez-Camacho stands in front of a Moon display, featuring a lunar rock sample, in the Visitor Center at JPL.

In high school, science was the last thing on Jose Martinez-Camacho's mind. But one day, he was flipping through his chemistry textbook, and a diagram caught his eye. It described an experiment that was the first to identify the structure of an atom. Martinez-Camacho was amazed that a science experiment could reveal the inner workings of something so mysterious. He was hooked. Now a physics major at Cal Poly Pomona and in his fourth year interning at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Martinez-Camacho is immersed in unveiling the details of other mysterious objects: lunar craters. Using a simulation he developed, Martinez-Camacho is working to understand how the temperatures inside and around craters in the permanently shadowed regions of the Moon might point the way to water ice. We caught up with him to find out more about his internship and his career journey so far.

You've done several internships at JPL, starting in 2015. What are the projects you've worked on?

My first internship in the summer of 2015 was with the Lunar Flashlight mission. The idea of the mission is to reflect sunlight into the permanent shadowed regions of the Moon to detect water ice. My project was testing and characterizing the photodetectors that would be used to identify the water ice. So most of that project involved setting up an experiment to test those detectors.

My next internship was still with the Lunar Flashlight mission, but my project was to model the amount of stray light that the detector was expected to receive from the lunar surface.

After that, I started to work with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Diviner team. [Diviner is an instrument on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that creates detailed daytime and nighttime temperature maps of the Moon.] In that project, I was working with Catherine Elder to validate one of her algorithms that can identify the abundance and size distribution of lunar rocks in a single pixel of an image taken by Diviner. So I used the algorithm to analyze the rock populations around the Surveyor landers, which took images on the lunar surface that we could use to validate our results.

What I'm working on now is 2D thermal modeling of craters in the polar regions of the Moon. The end goal is to better understand the thermal environments of the Moon's permanently shadowed regions, which can harbor water ice. Because the stability of water ice is very sensitive to temperatures, knowing the thermal environment can tell us a lot about where these water-ice deposits might exist.

Bright greens, purples and red indicate temperatures of craters on a section of the Moon in this data image

This temperature map from the Diviner instrument on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the locations of several intensely cold impact craters that are potential cold traps for water ice as well as a range of other icy compounds commonly observed in comets. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/UCLA | + Expand image

What is your average day like on your current project?

I'm using MATLAB to write code [that I use to model the craters]. I wrote the code from scratch. Right now I'm at the point where I've written the program, I've gone through most of the debugging and the derivations of the equations and picking the algorithm, so I'm just running the model and waiting for results. So an average day would be to come in and run the model for different cases. There's a range of crater diameters and a range of latitudes where permanent shadows exist, so I run the model for these different cases, wait for the results and interpret the results at the end of the simulations. I also do some debugging now and then to deal with problems in the code.

What got you interested in a science career?

I think it happened in my junior year of high school. I was always disinterested in school and never paid attention. In chemistry class, we were learning about the atom, and for some reason, I opened up my chemistry book at home and started looking at the diagrams. I found a section on the Rutherford gold foil experiment, which showed that atoms consist of a tightly packed positive nucleus surrounded by electrons. I was amazed that someone could deduce that from a simple experiment. So that sparked my interest in science. After that, I started to read about chemistry and astronomy and all types of science. That was the pivotal moment.

How did you pursue that career path, and were there any challenges along the way?

I knew I'd have to go to community college because, at the time, my GPA wasn't going to get me anywhere. So I knew I had to start at the very, very beginning. But I had a very clear plan: Just keep studying, keep getting good grades until you get to where you want to be.

Sometimes students – especially community college students – feel intimidated applying for JPL internships, even though they should absolutely apply! Did you feel that way at all, and if so, how did you overcome that fear?

I was almost not going to submit my application just because I thought I wasn't good enough to intern at JPL. But ultimately, I had nothing to lose if I got rejected. It would be the same outcome as if I didn't apply, so I submitted my application. And I was really surprised when I got the acceptance letter.

What was your first experience at JPL like?

Everything was super-unfamiliar. I was in a lab, working on a science instrument, and I wasn't an instruments guy. But I got a lot of help from other people who were on the project. Even though it was difficult, it made it very enjoyable to always have someone there with the right answer or a suggestion.

How has your time at JPL molded your career path?

I think it established it. Next year, I'm going to Southern Methodist University to start a geophysics Ph.D. and my graduate advisor is someone who I met at one of the Diviner team meetings. Being at JPL has made that connection for me. And through JPL, I found what I want to do as a career.

What is your ultimate career goal?

After grad school, it would be really, really nice to come back here as a research scientist.

Are you interested in lunar research or anything planetary?

I think I'm really biased toward the Moon just because it's been my focus throughout my JPL internships. But I could see myself studying other planets or bodies. Mercury is very similar to the Moon. Anything without an atmosphere will do. That's what I'm comfortable with. If you add an atmosphere, the science is different. Ultimately, I think I'm interested in planetary science; it's just a matter of learning new science and learning about new planetary bodies.

Well, that leads nicely into my fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

I think I'd go somewhere around Saturn, or a moon of Saturn. Looking up from one of Saturn's moons would be a pretty amazing sight, with Saturn and its rings on the horizon.

Going back to your career path so far, did you have any mentors along the way?

In high school, I don't think so. I just needed to graduate. But in community college, I was part of this program called EOPS, or Extended Opportunity Programs and Services. It's for minorities and disadvantaged groups. There's counseling involved with people who knew what someone like me might be struggling with. There was that support group throughout my time at Citrus College. And there was also the Summer Research Experience Program [at Citrus.] That's the one I applied to in order to get the summer internship here. It was through Citrus College's partnership with JPL. One of the people who was in charge of that, Dr. Marianne Smith, she was always encouraging me, saying, "Just because you come from a community college doesn't mean you're any less than someone who is at UCLA or any other university." So that was another source of support.

Did you see advantages to going the community college route?

Yeah, definitely. It's a smaller community, so you get to form connections a lot easier than you would at a larger college. The quality of education there is probably on par with other universities. So, there was certainly no disadvantage. And then there was that advantage of the smaller community. It's more personalized and easier to get help.

What would you recommend to other students in community college who are interested in coming to JPL?

Apply to the program. Take advantage of the summers and apply to internships. At Citrus College they have the Summer Research Experience Program, and they probably have something similar at other community colleges. Take advantage of that. If I hadn't applied to that program that summer, my life would be totally different. Those decisions can shape your future.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of 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, College, Internships, Interns, Science, Moon, Community College, Students, Hispanic Heritage Month

  • Kim Orr
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Erika Flores poses for a photo in the lab at JPL

Erika Flores might be the longest-serving intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As a high-school student, she helped test the arm for the Phoenix Mars Lander, which launched about a year later, in 2007. When she returned in 2014 as an undergraduate intern, she joined a team of JPL scientists studying how life began on Earth. A chemical engineering student at Cal Poly at the time, Flores helped the team with one of its early breakthroughs, producing amino acids, which are central to life processes, under conditions found on early Earth. Now known as the "senior intern," Flores has been an integral part of the team ever since. Meanwhile, she's earned a bachelor's degree, was accepted to graduate school for environmental science and started writing her master's thesis. She also recently picked up a part-time gig helping the Mars 2020 rover team keep the spacecraft – which is being built at JPL – clear of microbes that could hitch a ride to the Red Planet. We caught up with Flores to ask what she plans to do next, how her internships have shaped her career path and, as she says with a laugh, how they've changed her personality.

You've had five or six JPL internships, dating back to when you were in high school. How did you first come to the Lab, and what's brought you back all these years?

My very first internship was when I was a high school student going from my junior to my senior year. I think one of my teachers recommended I apply to SHIP, the Summer High School Internship Program, at JPL, and I got the internship. When I came in, it was a little overwhelming. I was 16. I still wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to major in, but I got matched with a mentor who was an electrical engineer, doing some robotics testing on the arm for the Phoenix Mars Lander. So that was really exciting when I heard afterward that they were sending Phoenix to Mars. That’s definitely what – I wouldn't say piqued my interest because I was already into space, but it was like, "OK, I want to come back here."

I went off to community college, and after I transferred to Cal Poly to get my bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, I applied [for a JPL internship]. I started working with Laurie Barge in JPL's Astrobiology Lab, doing experiments on the origins of life. We started with research on early Earth conditions because our experiments have to reflect Earth before life as we know it existed. From there, we did a couple of experiments using iron mineral, or iron hydroxide, which is pretty basic and you can find it in nature. Then we adjusted the conditions. So we adjusted the pH to what it would be in early Earth – concentrations that you would find in the ocean floor. Using previous experiments and previous literature, we did an experiment to see if we could produce amino acids – so organics – based off of these reactions that could have been happening on early Earth. And our experiment was successful. We made alanine, which is an amino acid, and lactate, which is an alpha hydroxy acid. We use them for different properties in our body. So we expanded on the experiment, tried different conditions. Now we have a science paper in review. And that all lead to some other internships that are also related to the origins of life.

Erika Flores poses with her science poster

Erika Flores poses with her science poster. Photo courtesy of Erika Flores | + Expand image

Once I graduated, I wasn't able to qualify for an internship anymore. So Laurie hired me as a contractor. I was a lab technician, working part-time while I decided to go back to school. Once I got my acceptance letter to grad school, I was able to return again as an intern. Now I'm referred to as the "senior intern." So we get new interns during the summer or some throughout the year, and I train them, show them around, things like that, which is also pretty great because like they say, you learn more by teaching others.

What are you hoping to do once you graduate?

Since I will be graduating next year, Laurie, who is such a great mentor, has been pushing me to go talk to people and go network. She talked to one of our old postdocs, who happened to be looking for an intern. So just this September, I was converted to an academic part-time employee, which has really allowed me to branch out. Now I'm part-time with Laurie and part-time working with the Mars 2020 contamination control team, handling samples, cataloging them and dropping them off for analysis. The Contamination Control Group determines cleaning methods and the allowable amount of microbial and particulate contamination for spacecraft so that they don't bring those contaminants to the places that they visit. For the Mars 2020 rover, this is an especially crucial step because it will be collecting samples that could potentially be returned to Earth one day. I kind of get to see what's going on behind the scenes of the mission, which an intern normally would not get the chance to do, so it's been a really rewarding experience.

Hopefully, when I graduate, I'll land a full-time job at JPL. Working with Laurie is great, and I feel like she would want to keep me here, but from talking to people higher up, they say if you want to be in the Science Division, you need a Ph.D., and I'm still debating whether I want to do a Ph.D. Perhaps I will in the future, but right now, I'm finishing up my master's thesis and my goal is just to get a full-time job. I find JPL to be so exciting regardless of what you're doing, so at this point, I don't care what it is. It'll still be part of a bigger picture. But it would be great if I could continue with the Mars 2020 mission as an engineer. Since I've lived in LA, I've always known of JPL. So I think this has always been my ultimate goal.

How have your various JPL internships influenced the evolution of your career path?

I started with chemical engineering [as an undergrad], but then I realized a lot of people in my field were going into the oil industry. I was like, "I kinda wanna save the planet, do environmental stuff." I only graduated three years ago, but even then, I didn't hear much about environmental science or environmental engineering as a major, so it wasn't really an option.

The reason why Laurie chose me as her intern was because of my chemistry background, which is pretty awesome because even though I studied engineering, I saw myself doing more lab work. Being here in the lab with Laurie has been amazing. It has solidified my thoughts that "Yes, this is what I want to do." I definitely like doing experiments, taking samples, running analyses and then inputting the data.

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[Before going to grad school], I started turning to a lot of the talks here, because I was like, "OK, maybe I could be more involved with astronomy, astrobiology – things like that." But I felt that a lot of the talks were over my head. But then when I would attend some talks that had to do with climate change or, for example, the new ECOSTRESS [Earth science mission], I was captivated and interested. So it confirmed that I want to stick to the environmental side. That's why, for my master's, I went into environmental science with an option in engineering.

What got you interested in science and engineering initially?

I've always really liked math, but I knew I couldn't just do a math major. I knew I wanted to do more. Growing up, my favorite types of movies were sci-fi, and I was definitely into outer space and astronomy. Knowing how things work was always a curiosity. Trying to know the unknown was what really drew me into science. And then for engineering, I just couldn't decide. I wanted to learn a little bit of everything. The whole reason why I chose engineering was that I couldn't choose one specific subject. With engineering, you need your math, your physics, you need your chemistry, you need some biology, depending on what kind of engineering you go into, but it encompasses everything.

Is anyone in your family involved in engineering or science?

No. I'm actually the middle child of five. My mom came here from Mexico. So we're all first-generation. But I was the first one to even graduate high school. My little brother is in college, and I'm pushing him, because I see my other brother, who is working overnight and overtime and always tired, and it's obviously something he didn't think he was going to end up doing. Also, my mom came here and she struggled a lot, and she's still struggling. As sad as it sounds, I don't want that to be me. So I had to push through. Luckily for me, I was always into school, so it wasn't that hard to keep going.

Going back to the research that you're doing, what's the ultimate goal, and what might it mean for the search for life beyond Earth?

So most of my experiments don't have to do with other planetary systems; they're more focused on Earth and the origins of life here. But we could take some of this knowledge and apply it to other planets. Our research is figuring out what happened here, first, and then applying it to other places. Our ultimate goal is to explore processes for the origin of life.

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

Erika Flores demonstrates how to make a chemical garden

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

Even if you do the smallest task, it still has to be done. Someone has to take these samples to get analyzed, someone has to drop these things off. But, personally, working with Laurie Barge and the origins of life, I feel like I've contributed a lot. We have one paper in review, and we're doing more experiments. Our research has implications for other celestial bodies, so I’m excited for us to learn more about Mars and Saturn's moon Enceladus so we can adjust our experiment to represent their environments. I have also been helping interns with their experiments. I don't think you can disregard anything you do here. I think everything is important, and you're always learning and teaching others. Whenever I meet students, I'm always saying, "Make sure you apply to JPL." It's a wonderful opportunity. I consider myself so lucky to still be here after all these years.

What's the most unique NASA or JPL experience you've had while you've been here?

Recently, my mentor has been hosting science happy hours. At school, it's not like you just go out and drink with your professor. [Laughs.] But the whole point of it was for her to introduce us to other people who are working in the science department. So going to these happy hours gives us a chance to talk and see what everyone is working on. It's all about collaborating. So, to me, that has been a bit of a unique experience.

Also, going to conferences. I've gone to maybe four or five. Meeting these people from all over the world is definitely a unique experience. It's crazy how we're all kind of working toward the same goal. Before I used to be very shy, more introverted, but meeting people from all over the world and knowing their stories and their background and how much we have in common, despite where we live, has gotten me to be more open. So that's helped me out in the whole networking aspect of things, which is very, very important when you're trying to get a job.

I really think this internship changed my personality. [Laughs.] I really do.

Last question, and it's a fun one: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

With the possibility of seeing humans on Mars within my lifetime, I have joked with my friends that I would love to die on Mars. But I wouldn't want to limit myself. So if possible, at an older age, I would keep traveling through space, passing by every celestial body imaginable. That would be an astonishing and beautiful sight. Once I felt like I had witnessed it all, I would travel straight into a black hole to witness what no one else ever has, the unknown.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.

TAGS: Women in STEM, Internships, Higher Education, College, STEM, Science, Engineering, Mars 2020, Hispanic Heritage Month

  • Kim Orr
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Vicky Espinoza stands in front of an Earth science display at JPL

In the science world, publishing a paper is a big deal; it’s how scientists share their discoveries with the world. So it’s no small feat that Vicky Espinoza published her first science paper as an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In the paper, her team takes a look at the effects of climate change on global atmospheric rivers, which bring an onslaught of snow and rain to affected areas and have serious implications for people who live there. The Earth science student from the University of California, Merced, met with us this summer to share how she’s helping her team take the research further and what it’s like to be an intern at JPL.

What are you working on at JPL?

We're studying how atmospheric rivers – which are long jets of water vapor – move through the Earth system and identifying key physical properties that characterize their frequency and magnitude. We’re doing this by taking what we currently know about atmospheric rivers and contrasting it with “aqua planet” model simulations, changing one physical parameter at a time. An aqua planet is a theoretical planet that has the same dynamic and thermodynamic properties as Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, but with the continents removed. We’re also observing how climate change and these parameter changes combine to impact the physical characteristics, frequency and magnitude of atmospheric rivers in these aqua-planet scenarios.

Tell me more about atmospheric rivers and the impacts that they have on our climate.

There is a certain geometry to them that separates them from other storm types. They often tap moisture in the tropics and transport it toward the poles and into and across mid-latitudes. An important feature of them is that they often make landfall on the western coasts of continents – so the mountainous regions like the Sierras and the Andes. When the warm, moist air rises to cross the mountains, it cools down and precipitates out as either snow or rain, depending on the temperature. Just to give you a sense of how much water they can hold, a single atmospheric river can transport 25 Mississippi Rivers of water as water vapor. So the implications are that they can cause severe flooding, or in their absence, they can cause drought periods. So they're very important for water management, especially for regions like California that depend on precipitation for water.

Diagram showing the path and dynamics of atmospheric rivers

This graphic shows what happens when atmospheric rivers make landfall. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

You were the lead author on a science paper published recently on this topic.

Yes. It’s a global analysis of climate-change projection effects on atmospheric rivers. It was the first paper that performed such an analysis on atmospheric rivers on a global scale. My mentors, Bin Guan and Duane Waliser here at JPL, created an atmospheric-river detection algorithm, which we used to identify and compare atmospheric rivers globally. We found that with climate change, these atmospheric rivers will occur 10 percent less, but they will be 25 percent wider and stronger. Because the rivers will be more expansive, a given area will experience atmospheric-river conditions up to 50 percent more often despite there being fewer atmospheric river events. Also, the frequency of the strongest of these atmospheric rivers is going to double. It has so many implications for water managers and those living in atmospheric-river-prone regions who will need to start preparing or start thinking about the implications of these large storms.

Is this the first time that you've been an author on a paper?

Yes, it's the first time I've published a paper. My mentors made me first author, which was such a great experience. It was a lot of work. As a Ph.D. student now, it's fruitful to know what it means to be an author of a paper.

What did it mean for you to be able to publish a paper as an intern?

Just being so passionate about a topic, putting your hard work and soul into a paper and then seeing it become reality is – it's something different. I can't even describe it. It makes me feel like I've accomplished something.

What are you studying for your doctorate?

I'm taking a look at water management and sustainable water uses in agricultural regions in California.

Are you hoping to eventually work at JPL?

Yes. JPL has been a dream. I actually applied to JPL three times before I got an internship. I applied as an undergrad, and then during my master's I was, like, “Let me try one more time. Let's give it a go.”

It's been such a great experience to intern here. One of the things that I love about JPL is that everyone is so passionate and creative. It's like Disneyland for scientists. It's very motivating to meet people in line for coffee and be like, “Oh, you work on the Hubble Space Telescope? No big deal.” And they're just so grounded and so passionate, and everyone's willing to talk to you. So it's been a great experience.

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What's the most unique JPL or NASA experience that you've had?

I think the overall experience has been unique. I haven't been in a work environment where the majority of people are so happy to be here and everyone is just so passionate and driven.

What's a typical day like for you?

A typical day for me is behind the computer, so taking a lot of data and running it through a detection algorithm and running a statistical analysis on the data, creating figures and analyzing these atmospheric-river trends.

How do you think that what you're working on might help the average person one day?

Taking a look at this theoretical aqua planet, [a simulated version of Earth with the continents removed], and changing differing parameters of these atmospheric rivers is bringing fundamental insight into how they function, develop and move across the globe. I think that this work will inform citizens, stakeholders, policy makers and water managers on the future of California water.

What got you interested in science in the first place?

I feel like I've been doing science for a long time. My dad works in hydrology, so I've always been exposed to that. But I've always been someone very curious, especially about climate change. I started with air quality and how climate change is impacting the atmosphere. The atmosphere and ocean are connected in some ways, so I started exploring the ocean through an internship. Just being curious about our planet has led me to where I am now.

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

I am a fan of rogue planets, or floating planets. There's an [Exoplanet Travel Bureau] poster that imagines them as planets where people would go dancing. I would want to go to a rogue planet just to figure out what it's like. They don't have a parent star, so they're just out there on their own and there's something so serene and somewhat romantic about that.


Learn more about how and why NASA is studying Earth on the agency's Global Climate Change website.

Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.

TAGS: Women in STEM, Higher Education, Internships, College, Earth Science, Climate Change, Students, Science, Hispanic Heritage Month

  • Kim Orr
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JPL intern Maya Yanez stands in front of the Jupiter display in the lab's museum

There’s no telling what the first spacecraft to land on Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa could encounter – but this summer, JPL intern Maya Yanez is trying to find out. As part of a team designing the potential Europa Lander, a mission concept that would explore the Jovian moon to search for biosignatures of past or present life, Yanez is combing through images, models, analogs, anything she can find to characterize a spot that’s “less than a quarter of a pixel on the highest-resolution image we have of Europa.” We caught up with Yanez, an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, to find out what inspired her to get involved in space exploration and ask about her career ambition to discover alien life.

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Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on what may be a robot that we would land on Europa's icy surface. Europa is a moon of Jupiter that has this thick ice shell that we estimate is 25 kilometers [15.5 miles] thick, and there’s evidence that underneath that is a huge global ocean. If we're going to find life beyond Earth, it's probably going to be wherever there's water. So this mission concept would be to put a lander on Europa to try to figure out if there are signs of life there. I’m looking at an area on Europa about two square meters [about 7 feet] and about a meter [3 feet] deep. For perspective, we've only explored a few kilometers into our own Earth's surface. What I'm doing is trying to figure out what we might expect is going on in that little tiny area on Europa. What light is interacting with it, what processes might be going on, what little micrometeorites are hitting the surface, what's the ice block distribution? I'm looking at places like Mars, the Moon and Earth to try to put constraints and understanding around what types of variation we might see on Europa and what might be going on underneath the surface.

What's an average day like for you?

A lot of it is looking up papers and trying to get an idea of what information exists about Europa. My first couple of weeks here, I read this thing that we call the "Big Europa Book.” It's a 700-page textbook that covers basically all of our knowledge of Europa.

One of the other things that I've been working on is a geologic map, trying to look at what geologic variation exists in a couple of meters on Europa because we don't know. It's kind of crazy to think that when Viking [the first Mars lander] landed, we had no clue what another surface would look like except for the Moon. We had no idea. And then we got those first amazing images and it looked kind of like Earth, except Europa probably won't look like Earth because it's not rock; it's all ice. So even though we're trying, we still have nothing to compare it to.

If it gets selected as an official mission, a Europa lander would come after NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft. How might data from Europa Clipper contribute to what you're working on now?

Image of Europa acquired by Voyager 2 on July 9, 1979.

This image of Jupiter's moon Europa was acquired by NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft on July 9, 1979, from a distance of about 240,000 kilometers (150,600 miles). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Highest resolution image of Europa

This image is the most detailed view of Europa, obtained by NASA's Galileo mission on Dec. 16, 1997, at a distance of 560 kilometers (335 miles) from the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Europa Clipper could be really beneficial in that it's going to do more than 40 flybys where it goes around Europa in a bunch of different ways and at different proximities. It’s going to curve into the moon’s atmosphere and get really close to the surface, about 25 kilometers [15.5 miles] close to the surface. Right now, some of the best data we have is from hundreds of kilometers away, so the images Europa Clipper will take will be pretty nicely resolved. If you look at the current highest resolution image of Europa as compared to one from Voyager [which flew by Jupiter and its moons in 1979], the amount of detail that changes, the amount of cracks and complexity you can see on the surface is huge. So having more images like that can be really beneficial to figure out where we can land and where we should land.

Before this project, you spent a summer at JPL studying the chemistry of icy worlds, such as Pluto. What’s it been like working on such different projects and getting experience in fields outside your major, like chemistry and geology?

[Laughs] Yeah, one day I'll get back to astronomy. That's one of the things I love about JPL. Overall, I'd say what I want to do is astrobiology because I want to find life in the solar system. I mean, everyone does. It would be really cool to find out that there are aliens. But one of the great things about astrobiology is it takes chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy and all of these different sciences that you don't always mix together. And that's kind of why I like JPL. So much of the work involves an interdisciplinary approach.

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

I have one from last summer and one from this summer.

I really want to find life out in space. I'm curious about bacteria and microbes and how they react in space, but it's not something I've ever really done work in. A couple of weeks ago, I got to see astronaut Kathleen Rubins give a talk, meet her afterward and take a picture with her. She was the first person to sequence DNA in space. I would have never met someone like that if it weren’t for my internship at JPL. I wouldn't have been able to go up to her and say, “This is really cool! I'd love to talk to you more and get your email” – and get an astronaut's email! Who would ever expect that?

And then last year, I had something happen that was completely unexpected. I was sitting alone in the lab, running an experiment and, throughout the summer, we had a couple of different tours come through. A scientist asked if he could bring in a tour. It was two high-school-age kids and, presumably, their moms. I showed them around and explained what my experiment was doing. It was great. It was a really good time. They left and a couple hours later, Mike Malaska, the scientist who was leading the tour, came back and said, “Thank you so much for doing that tour. Do you know the story of that one? I said no. He said, “Well the boy, he has cancer. This is his Make-a-Wish.” His Make-a-Wish was to tour JPL. I had never felt so grateful to be given the opportunity that I was given, to realize that someone’s wish before they may or may not die is to visit the place that I'm lucky enough to intern at. It was a very touching moment. It really made me happy to be at JPL.

What was your own personal inspiration for going into astronomy?

I was the nerdy kid. I had a telescope, but I also had a microscope. So it was destined. But in middle school, I started to get this emphasis on life sciences. I'd always really liked biology so I sort of clung to it. We never really talked about space, so I just kind of forgot about it. But my senior year, I took this really cool class in astrobiology taught by an amazing teacher, who I still talk to. After the first week in her class, I was like, I have to do this. At the end of the academic year, that same teacher took me to JPL and gave me a private tour with some of the other scientists. I actually met Morgan Cable, the mentor I worked with last summer and this summer, on that tour. It was definitely a combination of being in this really great class and having that perspective change, realizing that we’ve learned a lot about life on our own planet, but there's so much to learn about finding it elsewhere.

Did you know about JPL before that?

No. I'm the first generation in my family to go to college, so I'm the one who teaches science to everyone else. I didn't even think science was a career because, when you're a kid, you don't often interact with a lot with scientists. So I didn't realize what JPL was or how cool it was until that tour put everything into perspective. I wasn't a space kid, but I found my own path, and it worked.

JPL intern Maya Yanez live tweets from the JPL Watch Party for NASA's Internships Town Hall with Administrator Jim Bridenstine

Yanez hosted a takeover of the @NASAJPL_Edu Twitter account during the NASA Internships Town Hall with Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

For National Intern Day on July 26, NASA held a special town hall for interns with Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Your question about how the agency prioritizes the search for extraterrestrial life was selected as a finalist to appear during the broadcast. What made you want to ask that particular question?

So it was a little self-serving [laughs]. Part of it is that it’s central to my career path, but I also want to run for office one day at some level, and I think it's important that there's this collaboration between science and politics. Without it, science doesn't get funded and politicians aren’t as well informed.

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

What I'm doing requires a lot of reading and putting things together and knowing rocks and putting scales into perspective, so it's not particularly specialized work. But the end goal of my project will be a table that says here's what processes are happening on Europa, here's what depth they govern and here's what it means if biosignatures are caught in these processes. I'm also going to be remaking an old graphic, including more information and trying to better synthesize everything that we know about Europa. Those two products will continue to be used by anyone who’s thinking about landing on Europa, for anyone who’s thinking about what surface processes govern Europa. Those two products that I'm producing are going to be the best summaries that we have of what's going on there.

OK, so now for the fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

Europa. Obviously [laughs]. Or [Saturn’s moon] Titan. Titan is pretty cool, but it scares me a little bit because there's definitely no oxygen. There's not a lot of oxygen on Europa, but what's there is oxygen. I would probably go to Europa and find some way to get through those 25 kilometers of ice, hit that ocean and see what's going on.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.

TAGS: Women in STEM, Internships, Interns, College, Students, STEM, Science, Engineering, Europa, Europa Clipper, Europa Lander, Ocean Worlds, Hispanic Heritage Month

  • Kim Orr
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JPL intern Kathy Vega poses with a model of Jupiter's moon Europa

Kathy Vega went from teaching STEM to doing it first-hand. Now, as an intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she's building an experiment to simulate ocean worlds. We recently caught up with Vega, a University of Colorado at Boulder engineering physics major, to find out what inspired her to switch careers and how her project is furthering the search for life beyond Earth.

What are you working on at JPL?

In our solar system, there are these icy worlds. Most of them are moons around large gas planets. For example, Europa is an icy moon that orbits Jupiter. There's also Titan and Enceladus orbiting Saturn. From prior missions, such as Galileo and Cassini, we've been able to see that these moons are covered with ice and most likely harbor oceans below that ice, which makes us wonder if these places are habitable for life. My project is supporting the setup of an experiment to simulate possible ocean compositions that would exist on these worlds under different temperatures and different pressures. Working in collaboration with J. Michael Brown’s group at the University of Washington in Seattle, this experiment is helping create a library of measurements that have not been collected before. Eventually, it may help us prepare for the development of landers to go to Europa, Enceladus and Titan and collect seismic measurements that we can compare to our simulated ones.

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What's a typical day like for you?

Right now, I'm in experiment-design mode. I've been ordering parts for the experiment and speaking with engineering companies. This experiment is already being run at UW in Seattle, but we're attempting to run it at colder temperatures to do a wider range of simulations, which haven’t been done before and will be particularly relevant to Jupiter’s moon Ganymede and Saturn’s moon Titan. I've been working with another intern, and we've been meeting with cryogenic specialists and experiment-design specialists at JPL to design a way to make our current experiment reach colder temperatures.

I also run a lot of simulations with Matlab software. There's a model that my principal investigator developed called Planet Profile that allows the user to input different temperature ranges and composition profiles for a planetary body. It then outputs the density and sound-velocity measurements that we would expect in that environment.

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

The Europa Clipper mission, [which will orbit Jupiter’s moon Europa to learn more about it and prepare for a future lander], is in development right now. A major planning meeting for the mission was held at JPL, and I got to sit in and watch these world-renowned scientists, who I think are like rock stars, talk science. There were all of these people having an open-forum discussion and, gosh, it was so cool. I felt like I was there with the people who are planning the future.

You already have a degree in political science. What made you want to go back to school for STEM?

When I was in high school, I was in Mathletes, but I was also in Mock Trial. I took AP physics, AP chemistry, AP calculus, but also AP civics and AP history. I remember in my junior year, I thought, I love math. Maybe I could be an astronaut one day. Space is so cool. Then AP physics happened. I didn't fail or anything, but after that, I just felt like maybe it's not for me.

JPL intern Kathy Vega inspects the experiment she's helping create

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

There were also a lot of critical things happening with politics around that time. Immigration was a really hot topic and walkouts were happening at L.A high schools. My family is from El Salvador, and I'm a first-generation college student, so I felt very motivated to study political science and be involved in issues that were happening first-hand in the world and affected my family and people I knew. So I went to Berkeley and got a degree in political science.

After that, I really wanted to get involved with service and just make a difference in the world, so I joined Teach for America. I taught math and I started a robotics club. It was through the robotics club and teaching my students about space and engineering that I really got excited again. I started pressing my siblings and my cousins to go into science. And one day, one of my cousins said, "If space is so cool, Kathy, why aren't you studying it?" I realized, yeah, what happened to that? I really loved that. So I decided to take classes at a local community college and did well. And now I’m at the University of Colorado at Boulder getting a second degree in engineering physics.

Do you ever feel pulled back in the direction of politics?

No [laughs]. Politics is a messy ordeal. I do my part as a citizen, but I like to think that thinking toward the future in science is where my efforts are best used right now.

How do you feel your background in political science has served you in engineering?

Going into engineering and science, I was very conscious of the fact that women and especially women of color are underrepresented in these fields. I think that having the background in political science, having the experiences working with communities gives me the ability to have thoughtful conversations with people about diversity.

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

With this experiment, I've been able to leverage my creative side. I feel like I'm laying the foundation for these missions to explore other moons and worlds.

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

There’s a star called Vega, and it might have its own planetary system. It's so far that we have no idea what's in that potential system or if there could be terrestrial planets. I'd want to explore that.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.

TAGS: Women in STEM, Interns, Internships, College, Higher Education, STEM, Europa, Europa Clipper, Europa Lander, Science, Ocean Worlds, Hispanic Heritage Month

  • Kim Orr
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