Collage of photos featured in this story.

To gain an edge in one of the world's premier robotics competitions, JPL brought in a team of experts at the forefront of their field – college students. The experience gave the interns and the Laboratory a new perspective on what's possible.


You know that movie trope where a talented mastermind recruits a ragtag team of experts to pull off a seemingly impossible task. That's what I imagine when Ali Agha talks about the more than 30 interns brought to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to take part in one of the world's premier robotics competitions.

In 2018, a group led by Agha was one of only 12 teams chosen worldwide to compete in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, Subterranean Challenge, a three-year-long competition that concluded this past September and brought together some of the brightest minds in robotics. Their goal was to develop robotic systems for underground rescue missions, or as Agha puts it, "solutions that are so state-of-the-art, there's not even a clear definition of what you're creating."

Calling themselves Team CoSTAR, which stands for Collaborative SubTerranean Autonomous Resilient Robots, the group also included engineers from Caltech, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Sweden’s Lulea University of Technology, and several industry partners.

Meet some of the researchers, engineers, and interns who make up Team CoSTAR. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Interns from across the country and around the world came to JPL to help conceive of, build, and test CoSTAR – a coordinated rescue team of flying, crawling, and rolling robots designed to operate autonomously, or with little to no help from humans. But the interns didn't just come to the laboratory to learn from engineers already well versed in building robots to explore extreme environments. In many cases, the interns were the experts.

"The problem we needed to solve, nobody knew how to solve it, so we needed people who are at the cutting edge of these technologies," says Agha. "We needed to get that one person in the world or a few people in the world who work on that specific camera or sensor or data or specific algorithm to come and educate us."

And Agha knew exactly where to find them: colleges and universities.

The interns' contributions would end up reaching far beyond the challenge. And the entire experience – from the mentorship they received to the technology they developed to the friendships they built – would change the course of their careers.

The Visionary

Even the Perseverance Mars rover, the latest and greatest Red Planet explorer designed and built at JPL, requires a fair amount of direction from mission controllers back on Earth to navigate around hazards and know which rocks to zap with its laser or when to phone home.

Since coming to JPL in 2016, Agha had been researching ways to make planet-exploring robots more autonomous so they could make similar decisions on their own. He was especially interested in autonomous technology for underground environments like caves and volcanoes, where the terrain and visibility make remote guidance challenging.

So when DARPA announced that it was launching a competition aimed at the development of autonomous robots for subterranean rescue missions, Agha jumped at the opportunity.

Agha stands in front of a large projector screen with robots of various shapes and sizes lined up against the wall behind him.

Agha gives a presentation at JPL about the technology developed for the DARPA challenge with CoSTAR's robot squad lined up behind him. | › Watch Agha's talk on YouTube | + Expand image

"It was a very good alignment and a great opportunity for JPL and for NASA," says Agha. "We knew if we can get into this program, it's going to expedite the technology development at a really high pace, and that's going to help NASA and JPL to develop these capabilities [for our own projects]."

But like developing robots for space exploration, the requirements would be tough.

Teams would need to build a robotic system that could autonomously navigate four circuits – a tunnel, an urban underground, a cave, and a combination of the three – in search of scientific "artifacts," or signs of human activity, hidden throughout the course. Then, in just 60 minutes, the robots would need to make their way through winding, cavernous, and dangerous terrain to correctly report the locations of as many artifacts as possible.

There were just 12 months between when proposals were selected and the first event in August 2019. Agha needed a plan – and a team.

The Strategist

Sung Kim first came to JPL as an intern in 2017, a year before the DARPA Subterranean Challenge was announced. A Carnegie Mellon doctoral student researching ways to help robots plan under uncertainty, Kim's childhood dream to work for NASA was rekindled when he saw an internship posting with Agha's team.

"From the first meeting, there was a spark," says Kim of his interview with Agha. "At the time, there were not many people actively pursuing that area [of planning under uncertainty]."

Kim spent that summer at JPL helping the team begin to develop what would later become the backbone of CoSTAR – a system in which robots can analyze their surroundings to find a route that covers as much ground as possible, increasing the odds that they will make discoveries along the way.

See caption.

Kim poses for a picture with the JPL sign at the entrance to the Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Image courtesy: Sung Kim | + Expand image

For JPL's part, such technology could be key to designing robots to explore worlds like Jupiter's moon Europa, where the terrain is still relatively unknown. For CoSTAR, it would improve the team's chances of finding artifacts hidden throughout the challenge course, earning the team points toward a victory.

When JPL's DARPA proposal was selected a year later, Agha eagerly enticed the newly graduated Kim back to the laboratory, this time as an employee and the head of CoSTAR's Global Planning Team tasked with "maximizing the chances of finding artifacts hidden in the environment," says Kim.

Kim would be the first of a wave of students who would come to the laboratory over the next several years to lend their expertise in making CoSTAR a reality. In fact, one of them had already arrived.

The Detective

Xianmei "Sammi" Lei was looking to start over. She had come to the U.S. from China and become a legal permanent resident in hopes of finding better career opportunities. But she worried that her options would be limited while she was still making professional connections and learning English. That's when she discovered community college.

"One of the turning points for me here was realizing that we have something called community college," says Lei. "That gave me a lot of opportunities."

It was at Pasadena Community College that Lei started to build a network of peers and professionals and began her foray into the world of robotics. It was also where her passion for computer science was reignited, setting her on a trajectory to JPL and Agha's team.

"I took the beginning level of C++, and I liked it so, so much," says Lei. "I was like, 'Oh my god, you can realize your dreams through programming. That is so powerful!'"

Lei wears a Team CoSTAR shirt and crouches in front of sign that reads DARPA Subterranean Challenge Urban Circuit - To Beta Course.

Lei poses outside the course area holding up nine fingers to represent the number of points won by the team during the Urban Circuit in February 2020. Image courtesy: Sammi Lei | + Expand image

Lei applied for an internship at JPL through the Student Independent Research Intern, or SIRI, program, which is designed to pair students from local community colleges with researchers at the laboratory. She caught Agha's eye thanks to her involvement in a swarm robotics competition. Still relatively new to the field, Lei spent her first internship in 2017 soaking it all in, learning as much as she could, reading papers assigned by Agha, and following him to meetings, she says.

At the encouragement of her growing network, Lei applied and was accepted to a master's program at Cal Poly Pomona. She went on to spend four more years at JPL throughout her graduate degree and the entire DARPA challenge. All the while, she played an integral role on CoSTAR as the person in charge of programming the system to detect the most coveted artifact of all.

"Inside the environment was a dummy that was simulating a human survivor with the same weight, same heat, wearing a safety vest, things like that," says Lei. "My job was to detect those signals with the robot and have it report back to the team so the human supervisor could verify."

But before that could happen, the system would need to overcome any number of hazards, which according to DARPA might include small passages, sharp turns, stairs, rails, large drops, mud, sand, water, mist, smoke, dead ends, slippery terrain, communications constraints, moving walls, and falling debris. The team needed a mobility expert.

The Navigator

"I was doing lots of mathy stuff," says David Fan of his doctoral research at Georgia Tech prior to coming to JPL in the fall of 2018.

Fan had been researching algorithms that could help robots learn to independently navigate complex terrain when his advisor told him about an internship opening on Agha's team with the JPL Visiting Student Researchers Program, or JVSRP. Fan saw it as a chance to take his work out of the theoretical and into the real world.

"Once I joined the team and started working on these robots in real life, it opened up a whole set of new problems that I had never thought about before," he says.

Fan stands with his arms crossed in front of a fake rock wall and spotlights framing a rocky tunnel.

Fan poses in front of the entrance to the DARPA Subterranean Challenge Finals course in September 2021. Fan was one of a handful of team members chosen for the pit crew, which oversaw robot operations during the challenge. Image courtesy: David Fan | + Expand image

Problem one: How to get a robot through a hazard-filled course that requires a system with an almost contradictory set of features – small enough to get through narrow passages but big enough to support computing power, nimble enough to climb stairs and cross slippery terrain but strong enough to withstand falling debris.

Fan spent his early days with the team dreaming up robots with different kinds of locomotion – wheels, tracks, rotors, legs, and so on. Eventually, the team homed in on a solution involving all of the above, multiple robots with unique talents and ways of moving. Fan's doctoral research was key to unlocking how each robot could continually improve their skills, learning to navigate around obstacles as they encountered them.

Like their human counterparts, CoSTAR's robots each bring unique skills to the team, allowing them to autonomously explore caves, pits, tunnels, and other subsurface terrain. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

"Each environment would have its own set of challenges," says Fan, who interned with Agha throughout the DARPA challenge. "Trying to figure out where the robots could safely go in a subway was very different than where they could safely go in a cave or a mine. We broke a lot of robots. It was really fun."

But as often happens in engineering, one solution begets another problem. In this case it was how to coordinate multiple robots and get them working as a team.

The Field Commander

As a child in Indonesia, Muhammad Fadhil Ginting's favorite movie was a documentary about NASA rocket technology built to send astronauts to the Moon. He would watch it and rewatch it, dreaming of one day working at the space agency. But even after he had grown up to earn his bachelor's in engineering and begin to pursue his master's in robotics at one of the world's top universities, ETH Zurich, working for NASA seemed like a distant childhood dream.

That is until he saw an internship opening with Agha's team.

"Back in my undergrad in Indonesia, I was working with underwater robots to explore the ocean. When I found out JPL offered internships with the DARPA challenge team and it was about subsurface explorations, I was so excited," says Ginting who, like Fan, applied through JVSRP, which also brings in a small number of interns from foreign universities to work with JPL researchers. "I met Dr. Agha at an international conference and expressed my interest in joining his team. It was a thrill when he accepted me and welcomed me to the team."

When Ginting came on board, CoSTAR had just placed second in the Tunnel Circuit, the first of the four events.

After helping develop a strategy to coordinate the robots, Ginting was chosen for the team's exclusive "pit crew" along with just four others: Fan, also an intern at the time, and JPL employees Kyon Otsu, Ben Morrell, and Jeffrey Edlund.

On the pit crew, Ginting would have just 30 minutes to set up and release the robots into the subterranean course before he and the others were sequestered in a separate support area from Otsu, the sole robot supervisor. "It meant that I needed to be ready not just for the technical but also operational, anticipating all possible things that can happen in the field."

To prepare both the robots and the pit crew for handling the challenges ahead, the team took multiple field trips around California and to a limestone mine in Kentucky. When that wasn't possible, they sent the robots through cubicle mazes at JPL.

Ginting (shown at 0:18) and other members of team CoSTAR send the robots on a test run through Elma High School in Elma, Washington, in the days leading up to the Urban Circuit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Ginting fondly remembers the field trips not just for the opportunity to work out any bugs in the software, but also for the chance to pursue his other passion for outreach, giving talks to college students and kids and chatting up locals at the hotel breakfast bar.

"I liked meeting the community and sharing the excitement of building robots, the excitement of space exploration," says Ginting, who also saw the field trips as a chance to bond with his teammates.

When the Urban Circuit came around in February 2020, the team with Ginting's help earned a first-place spot. And then, COVID hit.

About 20 people, many wearing safety vests, smile, clap, hold their hands up in the air, and cheer.

Team CoSTAR reacts to the news that they placed first in the Urban Circuit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

An Unexpected Challenge

Like it did with so much else, the pandemic threw the team and the competition for a loop.

Interns were sent home along with most of the rest of JPL's more than 6,000 employees, and the CoSTAR team had to learn how to do their work remotely. Lei recalls testing sensors from her home in Los Angeles or asking other team members to try them out in different environments.

In some ways, the remote work was good for the team. Rather than the intensive testing schedule, "people had more time for thinking," says Lei. Meanwhile, the team was able to bring on remote interns previously unable to travel to the Southern California laboratory.

The Cave Circuit, originally scheduled for November 2020, was canceled, but once vaccines began rolling out and restrictions on indoor gatherings were loosened, DARPA announced that the Final Event would take place in September 2021.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

A robot shaped like a dog and carrying various tools on its back shines a light into a darkened cave.

One of the team's robots named NeBula-Spot walks on four legs to explore hard-to-access locations, like this narrow cave. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

"We were in pretty good shape – even in the preliminary rounds, we won with a good margin," says Agha. "But in the final event, our calibration system had an issue, so our robots entered the course 30 minutes late. It wasn't the kind of demonstration we were hoping to be able to have, but for that half of the time, it went really perfect."

While CoSTAR did not win the final competition, the overall experience was an unequivocal win not just for the team, but also for the interns and for JPL.

"We got all this great talent and technology – again, huge thanks to our interns and their mentors," says Agha. "They brought all this expertise to JPL, and the amount of capabilities that got developed really changed a lot about [autonomous technology] at JPL. We pushed state-of-the-art boundaries forward. We published strong papers and showed the world JPL's capabilities."

Already, the team's technology is making its way into a number of JPL and NASA projects including a snake-like robot designed to explore deep crevasses on icy worlds beyond Earth, self-driving offroad cars that could inspire future lunar exploration vehicles, and a project researching the possibility of finding microbial life within volcanic caves on Mars.

Many of the interns say the experience changed the course of their careers.

"It really set me on a different trajectory that I hadn't imagined before," says Fan, who is now working for the U.S. Navy in collaboration with JPL on the project to develop offroad self-driving vehicles. "It introduced me to so many of the real-world robotics problems that are out there waiting to be solved. It opened up a lot of doors and introduced me to a lot of people. It completely changed the trajectory of my Ph.D. and my career."

Lei was recently hired at JPL as a full-time employee, and she says she's looking forward to exploring new ways robots can assist humans in the future.

Kim continues to expand his research in new ways, taking part in JPL projects like Europa Lander, which hopes to send the first robot to explore the icy moon considered to be the next frontier in the search for life beyond Earth.

Ginting was accepted into a doctoral program at Stanford and is continuing his research collaboration with Agha and Kim. He says, "Now, I'm so eager to work on robotics research topics that can also work for space exploration."

In July, the entire team of about 150 people plans to meet up for a reunion cake party. Over the course of the challenge, cake parties had become an annual tradition for the tight knit group. They even managed to hold a virtual party in 2020. As with all things CoSTAR, the bakers go above and beyond to make cakes with life-like caves, moving parts, and LEDs.

When we talked, Agha flipped through photos of cake parties past and said that more than anything, it's this – the team camaraderie, the friendships – that is the greatest win of all.


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

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

TAGS: Internships, Interns, College, Students, Community College, SIRI, JVSRP, YIP, Higher Education, Robotics, Engineering, Computer Science, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

  • Kim Orr
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Collage of photos featured in this story.

We went behind the scenes with three interns on NASA’s Earth System Observatory team to learn how they're devoting their future careers to putting our planet first.


Leave it to the interns at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to school the full-timers. Case in point: JPL intern Joalda Morancy knows exactly how to explain—in bite-sized, plain English—NASA’s latest multi-missioned initiative to study our home planet.

“The Earth System Observatory aims to tackle one of the biggest issues we’re facing today—climate change,” they say of NASA's ESO. “We need to have multiple missions that look at the Earth system as a whole in order to tackle the issue of climate change in the next couple of decades.”

The observatory will be made up of an array of satellites, instruments, and missions to form a well-rounded collection of observations meant to offer crucial and precise measurements of our environment. As NASA puts it: “Taken together, as a single observatory, we will have a holistic, 3-dimensional understanding of our Earth’s systems—how they work together, how one change can influence another.”

While the ESO is in its early stages, it’s a crucial time for interns to be involved, as their generation will most likely face the most pressing challenges resulting from climate change. We spoke to three JPL interns getting first-hand experience with the observatory's missions and projects to learn why, to them, Earth is the most important planet to study right now.

Joalda Morancy

Joalda Morancy smiles in a close-up photo.

Image courtesy: Joalda Morancy | + Expand image

Morancy first became fascinated by space exploration in high school thanks to a YouTube video on how to make a peanut butter and honey sandwich in space.

“I love telling that story,” Morancy says with a laugh. “It was so random, and I was so intrigued. I watched the entire video and thought, ‘This is amazing.’ I did a lot more research about what NASA does and that was my gateway to space.”

Flash forward a few years to college at the University of Chicago, where Morancy discovered there was one planet in particular that really captured their attention: Earth.

“I was initially interested in space exploration, and while [majoring in] astrophysics, I took a class on what makes a planet habitable,” they recall. “It taught me everything about basic Earth sciences and how that ties into Earth and the big picture of how a habitable environment operates.”

Morancy found it so interesting and—combined with their growing alarm about climate change—wanted a hand in studying how to preserve our planet. So Morancy took more classes in geophysics and geophysical sciences, including courses on atmosphere, glaciology, and physical geology.

“I wanted to give myself the foundational knowledge,” Morancy says. “And right after that, I started at JPL.”

They had originally searched JPL’s careers site for internships with the Perseverance Mars rover mission but noticed an opening with the Earth Science team.

“I didn’t know JPL did Earth science; I thought it was mostly Mars and robotic exploration,” they say. “When I saw that opening, I knew it was the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about Earth.”

For the past year-and-a-half, Morancy has worked on ECOSTRESS, an ESO-related experiment aboard the International Space Station designed to measure water stress among plants. Now, they are interning with the ESO successor to ECOSTRESS, the Surface Biology and Geology, or SBG, mission.

A heatmap showing land surface temperatures in California as measured by the ECOSTRESS mission.

A graphic developed by Morancy during their internship with the ECOSTRESS mission shows the land surface temperatures at different locations throughout California. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

“I help with a lot of project management since SBG is in its early stages,” they say. “A lot of things are starting to cook up, and a lot of engineers and scientists are being onboarded to the team. I’m working with the team to help onboard, and I’m also helping with the science instruments for SBG.”

The magnitude of being part of SBG and the observatory team in their early stages is not lost on Morancy.

“I really believe it will have a long-lasting impact on how we look at climate change and how we target those specific issues to fix,” they say. “It'll be a major driver for future researchers and scientists.”

While Morancy hopes to combine Earth sciences and space exploration for their future career, they’re invested in studying our blue planet for the long run.

“I think Earth science is incredibly important because this is our only home,” they say. “Even though people are looking to settle on Mars and other celestial bodies ... I think it’s important to take care of this rock we’ve been given to live on. It’s crucial to make sure we take care of it for future generations.”

Rebecca Gustine

Rebecca Gustine smiles for a photo atop an elephant.

Image courtesy: Rebecca Gustine | + Expand image

When Rebecca Gustine studied abroad in Thailand during her junior year of college, she didn’t realize it would alter the course of her studies and her future career path.

“I had a lightbulb moment realizing how human development and access to water go hand in hand,” she says.

Gustine went on to Washington State University, where she is now a Ph.D. student studying civil engineering with a focus on water resources engineering.

“A lot of my undergraduate research had to do with water,” she explains. “It was from a global health perspective and had to do with access to clean water, hygiene, and gender dynamics in developing countries. I also really like math and physics, so combining global health with water resources engineering was very interesting.”

Gustine was so fascinated by water research, she knew she wanted to find an internship that would let her focus on just that. When she saw an open call for internships at JPL, she submitted her resume and was contacted by Gregory Halverson and Christine Lee, JPL scientists focused on using remote sensing measurements to study water quality, water resources, and ecosystems management.

Gustine started at JPL as an intern in August 2020, supporting the Earth science team by looking at how ECOSTRESS data could be used to preserve habitats in the California Bay Delta system, where the Sacramento and the San Joaquin Rivers meet. For the past year, she has focused on processing remote-sensing data and engaging with stakeholders. She was even first-author on a peer-reviewed paper.

“My work is basically using pictures [taken] from the sky that tell us information about the Earth and then making decisions about how to manage water resources and protect critical habitats,” she says.

Gustine is also well aware that her research comes at a pivotal time in the global conversation around Earth’s future.

“Given that climate change is having a profound impact on human and natural systems, we have to understand those changes and protect critical habitats and resources for the well-being of humans everywhere,” she says. “Changes in one component of a system can have cascading consequences for other parts of the system.”

While she works alongside others exploring the mysteries of worlds beyond Earth, Gustine is particularly proud to be part of pioneering research that could alter the future of our planet.

“Observing Earth is still space exploration, just from a different vantage point,” she says. “Given that NASA is the major proprietor of space, to look back at Earth using the same technology we use to go farther into space is important.”

Jonathan Vellanoweth

Jonathan Vellanoweth stands in a grassy field holding a phone in one hand and with a grasshopper balancing on his other hand.

Image courtesy: Jonathan Vellanoweth | + Expand image

What will be the future, long-term impacts of power plants on our environment? Jonathan Vellanoweth is spending his time as a JPL intern working with a team to try to help answer that very question.

Vellanoweth is a student at Cal State University, Los Angeles, where he’s earning his master’s degree in environmental science with an emphasis in geospatial science. In his internship with the Surface Biology and Geology team at JPL, he's using data and satellite imagery from ECOSTRESS and the Landsat mission to detect thermal plumes emitted by power plants.

Vellanoweth’s work currently focuses on the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo, California.

“We’re looking at power plants that intake coastal waters to cool their reactors, then discharge it at a higher temperature back into the same water body,” he explains. “I’m using satellite imagery to detect that thermal change and outline the area of what is classified as a plume, or anywhere thermal discharge is heating up the ocean or the coast. We can see where this plume is moving over the year or several seasons, and other studies can use this data to see what the actual effects are on coastal communities.”

Vellanoweth has been fascinated by Earth science since as early as 7th grade, when he took his first environmental science class where he learned all about the scientific method and later went out into nature to collect soil samples and study them.

As a JPL intern, Vellanoweth has been particularly grateful for the variety of knowledge his colleagues provide him.

“The amount of support that you have from all these great scientists that work here is really what attracted me,” he says. “You can intern for a lot of places, but at JPL, you have all these colleagues you can meet with who have a lot of feedback they can give you. There are people on your team studying similar and dissimilar things as you, so they can provide you with something you might not have thought about and help expand your research.”

Most importantly, Vellanoweth is looking forward to the information everyone will have access to in the future thanks to the efforts of all the missions and projects within the Earth Science Observatory.

“I’m excited about getting things out there and making them accessible to the public. I’m really big on that because there are a lot of people who want to do this kind of research, but a lot of times, it can be hard to find the data or algorithm you need, and it’s a lot of trial and error,” he says. “SBG and ESO bring all of these things together and make it available for everyone.”


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

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

TAGS: Interns, Colleges, Universities, Students, Higher Education, Internships, Student Programs, Year-Round Internship Program, Summer Internship Program, Earth Science, Earth, Climate Change, Earth System Observatory

  • Celeste Hoang
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Adrien Dias-Ribiero stands in the gallery above the clean room at JPL and points down at engineers in building the Mars 2020 rover.

Adrien Dias-Ribiero poses for a photo in the gallery above the clean room at JPL with the Mars 2020 rover behind him.

With microbes capable of living in the harshest environments and life-affirming chemical compounds that can arise from the right mixture of heat and materials, the job of keeping spacecraft as contamination-free as possible is not an easy one. This was the task of French aerospace engineering student Adrien Dias-Ribeiro this past summer when he joined the team building the Perseverance Mars rover as a contamination-control engineering intern. With the rover set to collect the first samples of Martian rock and soil for a possible return to Earth, the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has to ensure the sample-collection system stays "clean" throughout its journey to Mars. We caught up with Dias-Ribeiro to find out how he's contributing to the mission and what brought him to JPL from France.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working in contamination control engineering for the Perseverance Mars rover mission. I am working, specifically, on the part of Perseverance that is designed to collect samples that could eventually be returned to Earth one day.

Perseverance is looking to measure the presence of organic carbons, like methane, and search for evidence of past microbial life on Mars, so our job is to be sure that contamination on the rover doesn't interfere with what it's trying to study. All the material [used to build the science instruments on the rover] naturally emits some carbons, so we just try to reduce them as much as possible. We've done several tests on the materials used in the science instruments on the rover. My job is to take the results of the tests and make models to predict whether we're meeting the requirements that are needed. We cannot go above a certain level of contamination or the mission will not meet its requirements.

Watch the latest video updates and interviews with NASA scientists and engineers about the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, launching to the Red Planet in summer 2020. | Watch on YouTube

What is your average day like?

It's mostly coding. I take some measurements and I read them in Python [a programming language]. I also read articles about people doing this kind of work and try to improve their models or produce the models at JPL.

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

I go to ISAE-SUPAERO, the aerospace university in Toulouse, France. I'm studying space engineering.

What brought you to JPL for this internship?

I've done another internship in a similar area at the European Space Agency, but I was really interested to be part of the kinds of projects we have at JPL, like the Perseverance rover and Europa Clipper. I also really wanted to work internationally with a different culture than I'm used to. So I got some contacts with my previous supervisors. They knew people working here, so they recommended me.

I feel really lucky to be at JPL as a French person. One year ago, it was not imaginable that I would be at JPL, so I feel really grateful to be here.

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

I think it's when I was in the clean room [where the Perseverance rover is being built]. I was able to be one meter away from the rover and the descent vehicle [that will help land the rover on Mars].

Some people on my team had to do some measurements in the clean room and asked if I wanted to go with them, and so I did. I wasn't able to touch anything [laughs]. I just looked. I'm working on models of the rover, so it was really interesting to go closer to the hardware and the real spacecraft. I'd also never been inside the clean room before.

How do you feel you are contributing to the mission and making it a success?

I feel really lucky because the job I'm doing now will be directly applied to ensuring that the mission meets its requirements, which is to not go above the limit of organic carbon emitted by the hardware in charge of collecting the samples.

What is your ultimate career goal?

I'm really interested in systems engineering, so I'm trying to learn as much as possible about different types of engineering, modeling and how to manage projects.

If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon or on to Mars, what would you want to do?

I guess a lot of people would say, "Be an astronaut," but I really like living here on Earth, so I think I wouldn't really want to be an astronaut. If I could ensure the safety of the astronauts going to the Moon or Mars, that's the kind of job I would like to do.

This Q&A is part of an ongoing series telling the story of what it takes to design, build, land, and operate a rover on Mars, told from the perspective of students interning with NASA's Perseverance Mars rover mission. › Read more from the series

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

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

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Coding, Computer Science, Mars 2020 Interns, Perseverance

  • Kim Orr
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Tiffany Shi poses for a photo in front of a steel and glass building at JPL with the words "Flight Projects Center" displayed on the front of the building.

Deciding where to land on Mars has always meant striking the right balance between potential science wins and the risk of mission failure. But new technology that will allow NASA's next Mars rover, Perseverance, to adjust its trajectory to the safest spot within an otherwise riskier landing area is giving science its biggest edge yet. This past summer, it was intern Tiffany Shi's task to help prepare the new technology, called the Lander Vision System, for its debut on Mars. Analyzing data from test flights in California's Death Valley, the Stanford University student joined the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to make sure the new landing system will work as designed, guiding the Perseverance rover to a safe landing as the spacecraft speeds toward the surface into Mars' Jezero Crater. We caught up with Shi to find out what it was like to work on the technology, how she managed the 8-to-5 and how she found a new approach to problem-solving.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working with the Mars 2020 mission, building the lander system for the Perseverance Mars rover. This is new technology in that [as the rover is landing on Mars] it is going to be able to look down at the surface below and figure out where is the safest place to land within the chosen area. Because of this technology, we're going to be able to land in a place that's more geologically and scientifically interesting than anywhere else we've been on Mars.

How did previous Mars landings work?

Before, it was only really safe to land if we picked a huge, flat area and programmed the spacecraft to land somewhere in there. But for the Mars 2020 mission, the spacecraft will take images of the terrain below as it descends into the atmosphere and will match those images to reference maps that we have from the work of previous missions. This will allow us to autonomously detect potential landing hazards and divert our spacecraft from them. In other words, the spacecraft is going to be able to look below and find the safest place to land in an area that's generally more hazardous [than what previous rovers have landed in].

What is your average day like on the project?

My average day consists of coming here at 8. That is very new for me [laughs]. I sit in the basement with two office mates, and we each work on our own things. I'm doing error analysis to find any bugs in the Lander Vision System, which is what will be used to land the rover on Mars. The algorithm for the landing system is pretty much written, and I'm analyzing the field-test data that they got from the tests that were done in Death Valley in February. Both my office mates are also working on the Lander Vision System, but they're not on the same exact project. They are all super-nice and helpful, and we all talk about our work, so it's a lot of fun.

Watch the latest video updates and interviews with NASA scientists and engineers about the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, launching to the Red Planet in summer 2020. | Watch on YouTube

Tell me more about the field tests and how you're analyzing the results.

In February, the team took a helicopter and they attached a copy of the Lander Vision System to the front. The helicopter did a bunch of nosedives and spirals over the terrain, which is really similar to what the rover will see on Mars. The goal is to see how accurate our predictions are for our algorithm relative to our reference maps. We're using the tests to improve our algorithm before the spacecraft launches.

What are you studying at Stanford?

I'm not sure what my major will be yet. I don't have to declare it until the end of my second year. I've only just finished my freshman year. I'm thinking maybe computer science or a mix of computer science and philosophy, because I really like both.

What got you interested in those majors?

I did debate in high school, and a lot of debaters use philosophy to argue different perspectives. So that's what got me started.

What about the computer science side?

I was in Girls Who Code while I was in high school, and there were JPL mentors who came to my school every Friday and taught us everything that we wanted to know. It was a super-fun place, super-inclusive. You see a lot of shy girls who don't normally talk in classes really open up. They had great debates, great questions, and it was just really cool to see.

Had you had any experience coding before that?

No, but I started taking some classes after that, and I did an internship at Caltech my junior year.

What was the internship at Caltech?

It was actually with Christine Moran, who now works at JPL. When she was doing her postdoc at Caltech, she brought in 12 high-school student interns through a program called Summer App Space. I worked in a team that classified galaxies into 36 different categories using training and test images from an online machine-learning community.

Very cool! What has been the most uniquely JPL or NASA experience that you've had while you've been here?

I went to see the rover being built in the clean room with my mentor, and that was just surreal. Even though I am sure my contributions are going to be very small, I think it's wild that I am actually working on something that's going to Mars.

Has your internship opened your eyes to any potential career paths?

I haven't taken any aeronautics and astronautics classes, and I think I might see if I'm interested in studying that. It is so interesting working on something that is literally going to be in space. In college, you have an answer to work towards, and here you are finding the answer. I think I didn't really process what I was going to be doing before coming here.

Eventually, I know I want to go into computer science, but also I want to go into maybe social impact work. I'd love to find some intersection between those. I feel like I grew up really privileged, so I want to use my skills to help other people. But I do love computer science or something where I'd be really at the forefront of research.

If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon or on to Mars, what would you want to do?

Be there. I met Jessica Watkins, who used to intern here, and now she's one of the new NASA astronauts. She spoke to us during my Caltech internship. It was super surreal meeting her. So if I could play any part, I'd want to be up there.

This Q&A is part of an ongoing series telling the story of what it takes to design, build, land, and operate a rover on Mars, told from the perspective of students interning with NASA's Perseverance Mars rover mission. › Read more from the series

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

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

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Landing, Mars 2020 Interns, Perseverance, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Women at NASA

  • Kim Orr
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Mariah Woody poses for the camera with her hands clasped behind her back in front of a metal starburst screen.

This past month, intern Mariah Woody joined her team in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to say goodbye to the Spitzer Space Telescope, a mission that provided never-before-seen views of the cosmos for more than 16 years. Woody has only been interning with the Spitzer team since June, but she played a key role in planning the mission's final moments. And now that the mission has ended, she's helping document its legacy. While her internship has largely been about bringing the Spitzer mission to a close, the experience is marking a new beginning for Woody. Even as a master's student in engineering, Woody never thought her skills would qualify her for a career in space exploration. It wasn't until she heard about an internship opportunity with JPL through an initiative designed to foster connections with historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, that she decided to apply. Now at JPL, she's getting a whole new perspective on where her career path might lead. We caught up with Woody to find out what it was like to join the team for Spitzer's final voyage, how she's archiving the mountain of mission images and data, and where she's hoping to go from here.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on the Spitzer Space Telescope mission. Spitzer was a telescope that was designed to observe and study the early universe. It used infrared light, which can capture images of a wide range of objects that are found in the universe. It studied and observed new galaxies, stars and exoplanets. It was launched on Aug. 25, 2003, and it was one of NASA's four Great Observatories. It was originally planned for five years, but it was extended multiple times, so it lasted for more than 16 years. We just had the end of the mission on January 30. When I started, I was working on implementing a plan to archive all the data at the end of the mission and learning about spacecraft operations. Now, I'm working on the end-of-mission closeout activities.

What was your average day like when you were working on the final days of the mission?

I didn't have an average day when I was working on the operations team. We did a lot of different tasks, so each day was different. But usually, I would meet with my mentor and co-mentor to discuss the tasks that I was working on or the timeline and deliverables for the project. I learned about mission operations for the spacecraft and the systems on the ground that support the spacecraft. The spacecraft is controlled by programmed commands that we send through various antennas on the ground. The Spitzer team would have status and coordination meetings every week. All the team leads within the project would come together and discuss updates about the spacecraft, science details and other closeout tests that needed to be completed after the mission ended.

Even though the spacecraft is no longer operational, there's still more to do on the mission. What does closing out the mission entail?

The closeout team has to archive all the information into a repository where it can be looked at later, including the information that different team members have. It could be anything from documentation to images to any records, scripts or tools that were used. Once that information has been submitted, then I go in and audit the list and make sure that all of the products that need to be delivered are there and archive them.

You got to be in mission control for Spitzer's final moments. What was that experience like?

That experience was really fun for me. We called it Spitzers' final voyage, and I was able to be a part of the operations team in mission control, monitoring the status of the spacecraft in real-time as we all said goodbye. It was amazing to see all the different team members for the Spitzer mission come together on the last day to collaborate and do all of our work at once. It was a wonderful day in history, and I was proud to be a part of it.

Have there been any other standout moments from your time at JPL?

Meeting and learning from other people at the Lab. It's very nice to be able to just reach out to someone and sit down for lunch to learn about what they do and what experiences they have. I'm able to learn a little bit about all the different things that are going on here.

You're working toward your Ph.D. at North Carolina A&T State University. What's your research focus, and what got you interested in that field?

I'm studying industrial and systems engineering. It came to my attention because it's a broad area. You can do so much with it. I wasn't quite sure what industry I wanted to go into, so that's one of the reasons that I chose it. The fact that I can work in space exploration is very cool. I know that I like to explore different areas, improve things and make things more efficient. So I thought that this would be the perfect field for me to study.

What made you interested in engineering in the first place?

I've always loved math and science, and I performed very well in those subject areas when I was in school. When it comes to new ideas, I'm very creative. So I always wondered, "What can I do with this?" A lot of my teachers mentioned that I should look into becoming an engineer, so that's what I did.

What brought you to JPL for this internship?

I heard JPL was coming to my campus – they had an info session. I was notified about it at the last minute, so I missed out. I told myself, "I should still apply even though I missed the info session." So I applied, and then I received a call and got the offer.

But I feel like there was more to what brought me here than just applying and receiving the offer. I know that the offer was based on my hard work and saying yes to the challenges and opportunities that have come my way. I've always known about JPL, but I never pictured myself actually working here. I thought that it would be challenging, and I would be coming from so far away. It was a lot all at once, but I accepted the opportunity because I wanted to be exposed to and have the experience to work in space exploration. It's an area that I'd never really thought I'd go into coming from industrial and systems engineering. Now that I have some experience in the aerospace field, I have realized how much it impacts the industry in general and the economy of this country. It's a great field for my background.

Now that you've got some experience at JPL, how has it shaped your career path?

It's provided focus for my career path. I really want to stay within this industry. It's opened my eyes to see where I can branch off and where I can contribute and apply my skills. There's so much I can do with my background just in space exploration. I'm happy that my career path went in this direction.

What did you imagine that you would be doing before you came to JPL?

I wanted to be a part of designing something to improve a process at an organization or company. I didn't really have a specific job in mind. I've always thought that I'd maybe work in the medical industry, designing and improving medical devices. I've always had a lot of different ideas of what I wanted to do. I've kind of just explored and applied to many areas that were of interest.

Now for the fun question: If, you could have any role in NASA's plans to send humans to the Moon or on to Mars, what would you want it to be?

I think that I'd want to be involved in the training process – not necessarily me going through the training, but maybe coming up with ideas or requirements to get astronauts ready to go to space efficiently and safely.

This Q&A is part of an ongoing series highlighting the stories and experiences of students and faculty who came to JPL as part of the laboratory's collaboration with historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. › Read more from the series

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

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

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Black History Month, Spitzer, Universe, HBCU, Women at NASA

  • Kim Orr
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Vivian Li holds a computer and poses for a photo in front of a full-size model of the Mars rover Curiosity.

To remotely operate NASA's next Mars rover on a planet millions of miles away, mission team members will need to carefully plan out every drive, head swivel and arm extension before sending their coded commands to the vehicle. A wrong move could jeopardize the mission and, at the least, eat into the rover's precious energy supply. So this past summer, it was intern Vivian Li's task to design a web tool that will let mission operators ensure they're sending all the right moves to Mars. The internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory gave Li, an information and computer science major at Cornell University, a chance to bring her design skills to a team that's typically more focused on building interfaces for robots rather than for humans. We caught up with Li to learn how she's adding a human touch to robotic navigation on the Mars 2020 mission.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on a user interface for the Mars 2020 rover that takes in commands and produces a 3D simulation of the commands. So a rover driver could input what they want the rover to do – for example, drive 100 meters forward – and then, based on the terrain and all the other external factors, the program would take in the commands and simulate the path of the rover.

Is this something completely new for Mars 2020?

They've had the simulation software for a really long time. This is just a different way to package it and for people to be able to easily use it. The current version only runs on certain computers, so we're moving it to a web-based platform that can run on pretty much any modern browser.

What's your average day like at JPL?

I get in around 7:30 a.m., and at that time I just sort of warm up for the day in that I don't do anything that's super-taxing. I check my meetings and get set up. Then right after that, I jump into what I need to do. Right now, my primary project is creating the front end for the interface, writing a little bit of code and fixing bugs in the flight software simulation for Mars 2020.

If I'm not in meetings, I'll be writing code all day and doing a lot of planning. I'm in a different office than my team, so me and my co-intern will sometimes ask for help with our project, but it's a lot of independent work. It's great because my co-intern and I help each other a lot. Our mentors tell us what they want – like yesterday, they wanted us to incorporate a camera view into the simulation – then, we're the ones who figure out how to do it.

Pretty soon, we'll be going into user testing. There are a couple of people who would actually be using the technology who volunteered to test it out. Once they do, we can edit it based on how they feel about what we have right now.

What has been the most uniquely JPL or NASA experience that you've had so far?

Two things: First, just getting to stroll in and watch the Mars 2020 rover being built in the clean room. Second is meeting the people who work here. The people here all share a similar love of science and exploration research, which is really different from how a lot of computer science is oriented. All the engineers and even people who are in physics or communications share a common goal. I've learned so much from just talking to people and even other interns. It's been so cool, because I don't really get that exposure at school.

What made you decide to study information and computer science?

I actually went into college studying biology and English. I had done a year of coding in my senior year of high school, so I knew a little bit of [the programming language] Python. When I got to college, I decided to study biology, and I kind of started orienting toward computational biology. I worked in a lab, and the people there told me, "If you have computer science skills, you can kind of go into any field you want." So I had this career crisis moment when I was like, "I don't want to study biology anymore," because I had been in a microbiology lab all summer and it was not very fun. I figured if I did computer information sciences, it would give me more time to decide.

Even though I know a lot of people here have a lot more experience than me and they started a lot younger, I feel like my skills are so much more adaptable now, and that is what made me stay in the major.

So you still wanted to have that science focus?

Yeah. I don't want to fully isolate myself from the thing that I wanted to study originally, because I still do love biology, just not the career path that goes with it.

What about the user-interface side? Is that something that you're interested in, or did you get thrown into it for your internship?

That's what's special about my major in computer information science: Not only are we technically-based, but also we're user-and-society-based. So for our core classes, we take communications, law, ethics and policy, and all that. Through all those classes, I learned just how important the user-interface side is and accessibility design, and just how much easier life gets if the engineer really understands the user. I think having a good understanding of society and technology is what we should all be focusing on.

Are you bringing some of that user focus to your work with the Mars 2020 mission?

With my mentors being more on the software side and my co-intern being more on the development side, I think my having the user-interface design skills is unique in a very technical workspace. For Mars 2020, even though I'm not working on the design of the rover or one of the software systems, being here allows me to reinforce that the users are still really important, and we want to make it as easy as possible for someone to understand the technology even though it's super-complex.

What brought you to JPL for this internship?

A year and a half ago, I went on a trip to Texas with my friend from school. She brought her friend from home, who brought his friend. The two of them had interned at JPL. They spent the entire week talking about JPL nonstop, on all of our hikes [laughs]. I had never met people who loved their work so much that they wanted to talk about it 24/7. That made me think that JPL must be a great workplace and somewhere that everyone is really passionate. Since then, I've just wanted to come here.

How do you feel you're contributing to the Mars 2020 mission and making it a success?

I feel like the work I am doing is really important. And because I'm bringing a unique skill set to my team, it makes me feel like I'm valued at JPL. I've also been working with other teams who might also want to use my software. Because of that, I think that this concept could be developed for other missions and be really useful in the future as well.

What is your ultimate career goal?

I don't know yet. I just really wanted to work at JPL this summer because I felt like I would get exposed to a lot more. I think now I'm more stressed, because I have seen so many things I want to do [laughs]. But I definitely want to be somewhere in the realm of tech and society. My overarching goal is that I want to have an ethical career, something that can help humanity. And I think JPL is doing that.

If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans to the Moon or on to Mars, what would it be?

I really enjoy the work I'm doing now and would love to continue doing that in the future. I don't think I personally want to be an astronaut. I want to stay on Earth for everything that this planet has to offer.

This Q&A is part of an ongoing series telling the story of what it takes to design, build, land, and operate a rover on Mars, told from the perspective of students interning with NASA's Perseverance Mars rover mission. › Read more from the series

Explore More

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

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

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Coding, Computer Science, Mars 2020 Interns, Perseverance, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Women at NASA

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

Each year, 1,000 students come to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for internships at the place where space robots are born and science is made. Their projects span the STEM spectrum, from engineering the next Mars rover to designing virtual-reality interfaces to studying storms on Jupiter and the possibility of life on other planets. But the opportunity for students to "dare mighty things" at JPL wouldn't exist without the people who bring them to the Laboratory in the first place – the people known as mentors.

A community of about 500 scientists, engineers, technologists and others serve as mentors to students annually as part of the internship programs managed by the JPL Education Office. Their title as mentors speaks to the expansiveness of their role, which isn't just about generating opportunities for students, but also guiding and shaping their careers.

"Mentors are at the core of JPL's mission, pushing the frontiers of space exploration while also guiding the next generation of explorers," says Adrian Ponce, who leads the team that manages JPL's internship programs. "They are an essential part of the career pipeline for future innovators who will inspire and enable JPL missions and science."

Planetary scientist Glenn Orton has been bringing students to JPL for internships studying the atmospheres of planets like Jupiter and Saturn since 1985. He keeps a list of their names and the year they interned with him pinned to his office wall in case he's contacted as a reference. The single-spaced names take up 10 sheets of paper, and he hasn't even added the names of the students he's brought in since just last year.

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

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

It makes one wonder what he could need that many students to do – until he takes out another paper listing the 11 projects in which he's involved.

"I think I probably have the record for the largest number of [projects] at JPL," says Orton, who divides his time between observing Jupiter with various ground- and space-based telescopes, comparing his observations with the ones made by NASA's Juno spacecraft, contributing to a database where all of the above is tracked and producing science papers about the team's discoveries.

"Often, you get to be the first person in the world who will know about something," says Orton. "That's probably the best thing in the world. The most exciting moment you have in this job is when you discover something."

Over the years, Orton's interns have been authors on science papers and have even taken part in investigating unexpected stellar phenomena – like the time when a mysterious object sliced into Jupiter's atmosphere, sparking an urgent whodunnit that had Orton and his team of interns on the case.

Orton says his passion for mentoring students comes from the lack of mentorship he received as a first-generation college student. At the same time, he acknowledges the vast opportunities he was given and says he wants students to have them, too.

"As a graduate student, it was close to my first experience doing guided research, so I had no idea how research was communicated or conducted," says Orton of his time at Caltech, when he often worried that his classmates and professors would discover he wasn't "Nobel material." "I want to be able to work with students, which I sincerely enjoy, to instruct them on setting down a research goal, determining an approach, modifying it when things inevitably hit a bump, as well as communicating results and evaluating next steps."

For Alexandra Holloway and Krys Blackwood, the chance to provide new opportunities isn't just what drives them to be mentors, but also something they look for when choosing interns.

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

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

"I look for underdogs, students who are not representing themselves well on paper," says Holloway. "Folks from underrepresented backgrounds are less likely to have somebody guide them through, 'Here's how you make your résumé. Here's how you apply.' The most important thing is their enthusiasm for learning something new or trying something new."

It's for this reason that Holloway and Blackwood have become evangelists for JPL's small group of high-school interns, who come to the Laboratory through a competitive program sponsored by select local school districts. While less experienced than college students, high-school interns more than make up for it with perseverance and passion, says Blackwood.

"[High-school interns] compete to get a spot in the program, so they are highly motivated kids," she says. "Your results may vary on their level of skill when they come in, but they work so hard and they put out such great work."

Holloway and Blackwood met while working on the team that designs the systems people use to operate spacecraft and other robotic technology at JPL – that is, the human side of robotics. Holloway has since migrated back to robots as the lead software engineer for NASA's next Mars rover. But the two still often work together as mentors for the students they bring in to design prototypes or develop software used to operate rovers and the antennas that communicate with spacecraft across the solar system.

It's important to them that students get a window into different career possibilities so they can discover the path that speaks to them most. The pair say they've seen several students surprised by the career revelation that came at the end of their internships.

"For all of our interns, we tailor the project to the intern, the intern's abilities, their desires and which way they want to grow," says Holloway. "This is such a nice place where you can stretch for just a little bit of time, try something new and decide whether it's for you or not. We've had interns who did design tasks for us and at the end of the internship, they were like, 'You know what? I've realized that this is not for me.' And we were like, 'Awesome! You just saved yourself five years.'"

The revelations of students who intern with Parag Vaishampayan in JPL's Planetary Protection group come from something much smaller in scale – microscopic, even.

Vaishampayan's team studies some of the most extreme forms of life on Earth. The group is trying to learn whether similar kinds of tough microbes could survive on other worlds – and prevent those on Earth from hitching a ride to other planets on NASA spacecraft. An internship in Planetary Protection means students may have a chance to study these microbes, collect samples of bacteria inside the clean room where engineers are building the latest spacecraft or, for a lucky few, name bacteria.

"Any researcher who finds a new kind of bacteria gets a chance to name it," says Vaishampayan. "So we always give our students a chance to name any bacterium they discover after whoever they want. People have named bacteria after their professors, astronauts, famous scientists and so forth. We just published a paper where we named a bacterium after Carl Sagan."

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

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

The Planetary Protection group hosts about 10 students a year, and Vaishampayan says he's probably used every JPL internship program to bring them in. Recently, he's become a superuser of one designed for international students and another that partners with historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, to attract students from diverse backgrounds and set them on a pathway to a career at the Laboratory.

"I can talk for hours and hours about JPL internships. I think they are the soul of the active research we are doing here," says Vaishampayan. "Had we not had these programs, we would not have been able to do so much research work." In the years ahead, the programs might become even more essential for Vaishampayan as he takes on a new project analyzing 6,000 bacteria samples collected from spacecraft built in JPL's clean rooms since 1975.

With interns making up more than 15 percent of the Laboratory population each year, Vaishampayan is certainly not alone in his affection for JPL's internship programs. And JPL is equally appreciative of those willing to lend time and support to mentoring the next generation of explorers.

Says Adrian Ponce of those who take on the mentorship role through the programs his team manages, "Especially with this being National Mentoring Month, it's a great time to highlight the work of our thriving mentor community. I'd like to thank JPL mentors for their tremendous efforts and time commitment as they provide quality, hands-on experiences to students that support NASA missions and science, and foster a diverse and talented future workforce."


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

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found at: jpl.jobs

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

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

  • Kim Orr
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Max Rudolph crosses his arms and smiles at the camera standing in front of a glass window that looks down on the In-Situ Instrument Laboratory

Max Rudolph has had Mars rovers on the brain for as long as he can remember, and this past summer, as an intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he joined the team building the most advanced Mars rover ever. His role was to find bugs in the software that directs the precise movements of cameras that serve as the literal eyes of the rover and ensure that every swivel of the rover's cartoon-like "head" goes off without a hitch. For the Georgia Institute of Technology student, it was a step into a world beyond his electrical engineering major, but one to which he found he was well suited. We caught up with Rudolph between shifts in the In-Situ Instrument Laboratory, where engineers test spacecraft components in simulated otherworldly environments, to find out what an average day for him is like on the Mars 2020 mission and what brought him to JPL.

What are you working on at JPL?

I work on the Mars 2020 systems engineering testbed. I do mechanism integration and verification of flight software. Basically, I work with the remote-sensing mast on the rover, running tests to make sure everything works and try to find bugs in the software [we use to operate it].

What is the remote-sensing mast?

It's basically the head and neck of the rover. It kind of juts up off of the deck of the rover and makes it look a bit like WALL-E, the Pixar character. It has science instruments designed to measure the Martian wind and study the chemical composition of rocks and soil, as well as navigation cameras that serve as the "eyes" of the rover.

What kinds of tests are you running?

This summer, I've mostly been testing the cameras and the movements of the remote-sensing mast. So we move the remote-sensing mast around, use the cameras on the front of the mast to take pictures and see whether it can do what it's designed to do. We get instructions from the subsystem engineers, the people who designed and built different parts of the mast [such as the cameras and science instruments]. We try out the movements and commands they designed to see if they actually work when the whole system is together.

What's your average day like?

There are two types of days I have. Some days I have shifts in the testbed, and other days, I do work at my desk. When I'm in the testbed, I run tests and run through procedures with the remote-sensing mast on a replica [or engineering model] of the rover.

The rest of my time is spent preparing or wrapping up work I did when I was in the testbed. For example, before I run procedures in the testbed, I send the software commands we're going to use to test the mast through a simulation that tells me if they are valid or not. After I run a test, I note what changes I made to the procedure, and what worked and what didn't work, so I can refer to it later.

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

I'm going to Georgia Tech, studying electrical engineering.

What got you interested in studying electrical engineering?

I don't know how I got into it [laughs]. A lot of people ask me, "Why electrical engineering?" Not often, "Why engineering?" I think I chose electrical engineering because it's a very broad field. At school, I focus on controls and signal processing. I also do research in robotics for various professors.

But here, I'm not doing that at all. This is a systems engineering lab, and I've never done systems engineering. I am doing robotics, but it's very different from my classes. Kareem Badaruddin, who's my group supervisor, says, "We recruit a lot of electrical engineers. They usually know the skills. They have a base knowledge."

So I think I chose electrical engineering because there's a lot of variation in what you can do with your degree. You can go into software, robotics or hardware design and circuits. There are a lot of opportunities.

As far as what got me into engineering, I don't remember a time when I didn't want to do this.

What brought you to JPL?

This is one of those places that I have known about for years. I'm 20, so I probably learned about JPL in eighth grade. I was interested in working here because everything is going to space – there's nothing cooler than that. Being here is something I always thought about wanting to do, and now I have the opportunity.

Was there a particular mission or event that lead you to JPL?

It probably was Curiosity or maybe the [Mars Exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity]. I always had the rovers in the back of my mind – even before I knew that JPL built them. One day, I found my way to the JPL website, and I was like, "Oh, these spacecraft are all built here."

How do you hope you're contributing to this mission and making it a success?

I hope I find any issues that exist in the system so we can fix them before the rover goes to Mars. It's a good thing if we find an issue with the rover when we test it because now we can fix it, and that's one less thing that can fail when the rover is millions of miles away on Mars. My main goal is to learn and contribute as much as I can.

What has been the most uniquely JPL or NASA experience that you've had while you've been here?

People might think it's humdrum, but I think it's really cool: I worked on a side project, helping with the Mars Helicopter Delivery System, which is a mechanism on the 2020 rover that will place the first helicopter on Mars. We were testing it, and I got to see the first time this thing moved. It wasn't historic like Apollo and wasn't actually landing on Mars, but seeing it – even on a replica of the rover – gave me a lot of pleasure. Like a lot of things at JPL, it was one of a kind.

What's your ultimate career goal?

I know I want to be here, because no one in the world does what JPL does. But just as important, I want to make an impact on the world.

OK, now for a fun question: If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon or on to Mars, what would it be?

Ideally, I'd be the one going. But I'd also really like to be part of the team that gets the spacecraft to the Moon or Mars.

This Q&A is part of an ongoing series telling the story of what it takes to design, build, land, and operate a rover on Mars, told from the perspective of students interning with NASA's Perseverance Mars rover mission. › Read more from the series

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

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

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, rover, Mars 2020, Electrical Engineering, Mars 2020 Interns, Perseverance

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

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

What are you working on at JPL?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's your average day like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you studying in school?

I am studying mechanical engineering with a concentration in aerospace.

How did you get into that field?

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

Is anyone else in your family involved in STEM?

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

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

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

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

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

What has been your impression of JPL so far?

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

What's your ultimate career goal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever considered applying to be an astronaut?

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

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

What inspired you to start looking into being an astronaut?

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Q&A is part of an ongoing series highlighting the stories and experiences of students and faculty who came to JPL as part of the laboratory's collaboration with historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. › Read more from the series

Explore More

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

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

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Mars Sample Return, HBCU, Students, Careers, Mars 2020 Interns, Perseverance, Black History Month

  • Kim Orr
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