Amanda Allen holds out a rock containing a microfossil in front of the science building at JPL.

To prepare her team to analyze the first sample returned from Mars in the future, JPL intern Amanda Allen is exploring how she can get the biggest science from the smallest places. We caught up with Allen, an Earth science major at UC San Diego who also has a background in costume design, to find out what the tiniest and rarest fossils could tell us about ancient life on Earth – and beyond.

What are you working on at JPL?

I am trying to develop a method to analyze the isotopic ratios of organic carbon preserved in individual microfossils.

Say again?

As living creatures on Earth, one of the most important elements to us is carbon. When we eat food, we are adding carbon to our bodies, and depending on what we eat and where we live, we get different types of carbon, which are called isotopes. Some isotopes are heavier than others, but living organisms have a tendency to process the lighter ones, which we can measure as a ratio.

When a creature dies, and if it becomes a fossil, any carbon that is preserved will hold a record of its isotope ratio. If we can get that fossil, we can use a mass spectrometer instrument to separate the lighter and heavier isotopes to see what that ratio is. Then we can use that to figure out what sort of lifestyle and eating habits the organism had.

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But usually, you don’t get a single fossil. Sometimes your sample is what was once sludge at the bottom of a lake, and that makes it difficult to study a specific fossil because there are lots of things that lived in the lake and contributed to that organic-rich sludge.

My lab is investigating some of the earliest evidence of the evolution of life on Earth, and one technique is to examine very tiny fossils – and there are not that many of them. So my project is working towards being able to take an individual microfossil and analyze it with our instruments. Right now, the state-of-the-art method needs a sample with about 10 times as much carbon as these microfossils to work properly. There’s also a lot of possible contamination with that method. So I'm working on trying to get a different method to work.

How does this work play into NASA missions and science?

We're planning on eventually getting samples back to Earth sometime in the future after the Mars 2020 rover lands, and we want to be able to get the most information out of the tiniest amount of material so that more people can have the opportunity to experiment on it.

What are the samples that you’re working with?

The samples that I'm working with are these little blobs of organic, carbon-walled microfossils. We don't really know what they are. They're called acritarchs, which is basically a lump-all term for, “of uncertain origin,” but they're some of the oldest biological signatures on Earth.

What's an average day like for you?

Amanda Allen stands in the abcLab at JPL

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

I’ve been working with the same lab over the past 3 years. At first, I was trying to get a handle on imaging the samples, studying them with a light microscope and our scanning electron microscope, looking for things like whether the surfaces had any rock bits left on them, estimating how much carbon they had, and then preparing them to be analyzed.

This summer, the instrument I’m working with is this really cool device called a Pyroprobe. It has a little platinum wire coil, and you fit a tiny little sample tube into it and the platinum coil will heat up to around 1,500 degrees Celsius [about 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit]. We use oxygen to combust the sample so any carbon on it will turn into carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide can get passed to our isotope ratio mass spectrometer.

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

I think the people I work with have a really good vision and intention when going about investigations like this. We want to be the ones who they hand the samples to when they come back from Mars. We want to show that we're taking every necessary precaution to treat the samples with care and that we have instruments that can look at thin sections of rocks and make images of them that can be shared instantaneously. I really like being a part of that.

I also feel like my superpower is being able to find things. So if there's something cool to find on Mars related to astrobiology, I think I can help with that. Finding life or signs of life on Mars is the coolest application of my superpower [laughs].

Amanda Allen shows the instrument she's working with this summer

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

Before taking the science route, you were involved in theater and costume design. What made you choose to study science?

I had a really hard time choosing between costuming and geology for a long time. But then I realized that they didn't have to be separate things, or I could use one to kind of fuel the other one, and use an understanding of the natural world to inspire my art. Being able to actualize new ways of understanding the universe and helping other people understand it is really important, and I think that's where art comes in.

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

I think it's just being able to start up a conversation in the lunch line with someone and hear about this whole other experience and the important work that they are doing. People here are excited about what they do and excited to come to work. They want to cross boundaries. It’s people’s job to be the intermediary between the engineering side of things and the science side of things, and I’m totally into that emphasis on communication and bridging traditionally divided disciplines.

If you could travel anywhere in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

Hiking around Pluto would be pretty cool. I never thought I would say that until I saw the images of Pluto from New Horizons. I also realized recently that I'm more interested in going to Mars than another place on Earth. I'm like, oh yeah, Prague is cool, but I'm just more interested in Mars.


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

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

TAGS: Interns, Internships, College, Higher Education, STEM, Science, Geology, Mars 2020, Mars Sample Return, Earth Science

  • Kim Orr
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When the offer letter arrived from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Kiana Williams could hardly believe it. Thousands of science and engineering students apply each year for internships at the lab known for its dare-anything missions to the planets and beyond. Williams never expected it would be her first internship.

“It actually took me about a week to accept that it was a real offer and that I’d actually be coming to intern at NASA/JPL,” she said.

Kiana Williams at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Mechanical engineering student Kiana Williams grew up near JPL in Southern California, but she never thought to apply for an internship until JPL's Education Office visited her university in Alabama. Now, a first-time intern, she says she realizes, "Oh, I can do this." Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This summer, Williams is joining more than 700 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students for internships at JPL in Pasadena, California. Over 10 weeks, they will design new ways to study stars, investigate icy moons thought to be hospitable to life, and even help choose a landing spot for the next Mars rover.

“I get the opportunity to design an entire space telescope from top to bottom,” said Williams, a senior mechanical engineering student at Tuskegee University in Alabama. “It’s kind of a big task, but at the same time it’s fun, so it makes my day go really quickly.”

One of 10 NASA field centers, JPL is the birthplace of spacecraft and instruments that have explored every planet in the solar system, studied our home planet and looked beyond to discover new worlds. It doesn’t just design and build spacecraft, it also operates them, and collects and studies the science they return.

“It’s the only place in the world where everyone needed to conceive of, design, build, launch and land spacecraft, get the science data and write the papers about that science data are all in one place,” said Matt Golombek, a JPL scientist whose interns over the years have helped choose the landing sites for all five Mars rovers and landers since Pathfinder in 1997.

Scientist Matt Golombek with his summer interns at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
The self-proclaimed "landing site dude," Matt Golombek brings in a host of geology students each year to help identify landing sites on Mars. He has five students this summer helping with site selections for three upcoming missions, including Mars 2020. He says it's rewarding to see how students' JPL experience has a positive impact on their future no matter what they go on to do. (From left to right: Marshall Trautman, Matt Golombek, Rachel Hausman, Carol Hundal, Shannon Hibbard.) Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The lab’s internship programs give students studying everything from aerospace engineering to computer science and chemistry the chance to do research with NASA scientists, build spacecraft, and create new technology for future missions.

With more than 20 active spacecraft plus a to-do list that includes missions to Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa and the asteroid belt, JPL has no shortage of projects ripe for students who are eager for careers in space exploration.

Nirmal Patel at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Nirmal Patel says that in addition to the wow-factor of testing parts for a Mars rover, his JPL internship is a chance to meet other engineers and scientists all united in a common goal. "Here, everyone wants to explore. And when you have that common goal, it has a different atmosphere," he said. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“It’s just amazing knowing that what we’re doing now will also be replicated on Mars in a few years,” said Nirmal Patel, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Michigan who is testing parts for the Mars 2020 rover. “It’s surreal almost. I’m still a student but I’m getting to have an impact on this project.”

David Dubois, a three-time intern who studies planetary science at the University of Versailles Saint Quentin near Paris, returned to JPL this summer to continue his research on icy moons around Saturn, Jupiter and Neptune. Using data from the Cassini mission (which will end its nearly 13-year mission at Saturn this September) he is modeling the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan to better understand its chemical environment – and maybe discover if it could support life.

He says that in addition to access to one-of-a-kind data directly from spacecraft, JPL offers the opportunity to explore new fields of science and even career paths, if students are open to it.

“Being open is certainly something that I’ve learned from JPL, not being afraid of tackling different problems in different fields,” said Dubois, who is about to publish his first paper as a lead author based on his research at JPL.

David Dubois at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

When he's not doing research, David Dubois says he focuses much of his time on outreach, which is one of his other passions. This year, he traveled to India with a friend to visit schools and villages and encourage students there to pursue science. "I like to say that I think anybody is a scientist," he said, "as long as you try to provide an answer to questions around you." Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s precisely that exposure to its unique career offerings in science, technology, engineering and math – and a foot in the door – that JPL’s Education Office, which manages the lab’s internship programs, is working to provide to more students.

“Our students are operating right alongside the mentors and participating in the discovery process,” said Adrian Ponce, who manages JPL’s higher education group. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for them, and it’s also a great opportunity for JPL. Our internship programs are designed to bring in students from diverse backgrounds and underrepresented communities who share new ways of thinking and analyzing challenges. Many of them will become the next generation of innovators – and not just at JPL.”

For Williams, who plans to continue toward a master’s degree in design engineering after she graduates in December, her time at JPL is confirmation that she’s on the right path and has the motivation to keep going.

“It makes me feel like school is worth it,” said Williams of her internship experience so far. “All the stress I’m going through at school will be worth it because you can find places that are like JPL, that make your job fun.”

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

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

TAGS: Intern, Mars 2020, Europa, Cassini, Titan, Science, Engineering, Missions

  • Kim Orr
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Marco Dolci did not set out to become a NASA engineer. Instead, like many of Dolci’s pursuits, the career path presented itself on his lifelong quest “to know” – that is, to answer any and every question that crosses his mind. As a boy, his never-ending stampede of questions became too much even for his ever-patient parents, so they presented him with a book, 1001 Questions and Answers on Planet Earth. But rather than satiate his quest for answers, it spurred him to seek more.

Today, Dolci still asks a multitude of questions, but the answers he finds through his own determination and curiosity, which have taken him from studies in linguistics to physics to aerospace engineering to robotics – and across the world, from his hometown of Lodi, Italy to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Dolci first came to the Laboratory in 2013 as part of the JPL Visiting Student Researchers Program, or JVSRP. Having just earned a master’s in physics, Dolci was pursuing a second master’s in aerospace engineering at the Polytechnic University of Milan when he entered and won a scholarship sponsored by the Italian Space Agency and the Italian Scientists and Scholars of North America Foundation. His prize: a paid internship at any North American laboratory. He says JPL was the obvious choice.

Marco Dolci in Joshua Tree

Dolci in California's Joshua Tree National Park. Photo courtesy: Marco Dolci

“I chose JPL because it’s the best place to work on anything related to space,” said Dolci, adding that he only learned later that the laboratory is located in California, a fact that made it all the more desirable. “I just wanted to come here.”

Dolci spent two months working on concepts and proposals for missions designed to study black holes, protoplanetary discs, X-rays and cosmic rays. He became the lead author on a science paper about the latter, and the team was so impressed with his work that Dolci’s internship was extended another 10 months.

After a year, however, Dolci’s visa was up and so was his time in America and at JPL. But his next step was clear: He would find a way to come back. “I was really impressed by JPL, both for the people that I found here, who are open to learn and challenge themselves,” said Dolci. “And the fact that it puts on the table resources that allow great projects.”

So Dolci formulated a plan. First, he entered a PhD program in aerospace engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin, which in Italy offered the chance to spend part of his studies abroad supported by his university. He also applied for the US Diversity Immigrant Visa program, sometimes called the "green card lottery." With only 50,000 people across the world randomly chosen for green cards each year from about 10 million qualified applicants, it was a long-shot – but luck was on Dolci’s side.

In 2016, Dolci returned to JPL to do research for his PhD under the JVSRP program – but this time with a green card in hand.

For the last year, in concert with his PhD thesis, Dolci has been helping develop technology for a possible future NASA mission to bring samples from Mars back to Earth. In 2020, the agency will send a rover to the surface of Mars, where one of its goals will be to collect samples of Martian rocks and soil that could be returned to Earth in the future. Getting those samples to Earth would require a series of never-attempted feats, each with unique challenges.

Dolci is helping develop a device to transfer the sample from a container launched from Mars to a spacecraft that would carry the samples home. It would all need to happen remotely, in space, without the device jamming or exposing the samples to contaminants.

Having always approached problems from a theoretical perspective, Dolci says the chance to get hands-on with actual hardware has opened his eyes to new career possibilities.

“I think that you can really learn something when you put your hands on it,” said Dolci. “Otherwise, yeah, you know the theory, but there’s an ocean between theory and practice.”

Recently, Dolci’s manager encouraged him to apply for a job at JPL. He used the invitation as a chance to explore a career move – one that would take him beyond theory to start building devices capable of answering questions.

"I'm looking for a unity between science and space technology,” said Dolci, who will start his new job in JPL’s Robotic Vehicles and Manipulators group in November. “Robotics seems to me to be the best place in which these two interests find the common point to be able to provide a technological answer to scientific problems."

Marco Dolci in front of the Space Hab at the California Science Center in Los Angeles

Dolci poses in front of an astronaut workstation called SPACEHAB on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy: Marco Dolci

Dolci admits with a sheepish grin that he still has another big aspiration. In four years, once he becomes a US citizen, he plans to apply to be an astronaut. For now, though, he’s focused on learning all he can, continuing to ask questions and finding new ways to seek answers.

“I consider myself really lucky to be in a place like JPL,” said Dolci. “Working here is a possibility to keep moving up, to become more mature in terms of deciding who I am, what I want to do, where I want to contribute.”

To others looking to follow his trajectory, Dolci says while luck helped push things along, it was the power of determination, his quest “to know” and a support network of family, friends and mentors that made his dreams a reality.

“I would have never made it to JPL without the support of someone who has bet on me,” said Dolci. “Don’t give up on desiring good things. Dare mighty things because we are made for great things.”

Explore JPL internship programs and apply at: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the reach of NASA's Office of Education, 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: Intern, Internships, JVSRP, Mars 2020, Robotics, Science, Engineering, STEM

  • Kim Orr
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