Michelle Vo poses for a photo in front of a full-size model of the Curiosity Mars rover at JPL.

Michelle Vo poses for a photo in front of a full-size model of the Curiosity Mars rover at JPL.

Until she discovered game development, Michelle Vo’s daydreams were a problem. She couldn’t focus in her computer science classes. Her grades were dipping. She wondered whether she was cut out to be a programmer or for school at all. So she took a break to make something just for fun, a self-help game. And help her, it did. Now focusing on virtual and augmented reality, Vo is back at school, studying not just computer science, but also cognitive science, linguistics and digital humanities. It’s a lot, but to create a virtual world, she says one has to first understand how people navigate the real one. This summer, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the UCLA student applied her talents to VR and AR experiences that help scientists explore a totally different world, Mars. While Vo’s tendency to daydream hasn’t gone away, she now knows how to use the distractions for good; she turns them into VR inspiration.

What are you working on at JPL?

I've been working on multiple things. I work on this project called OnSight, which just won NASA Software of the Year, which we're really excited about. It's an AR project. ...

[A hummingbird flies past us and Michelle stops to point it out.]

Sorry, just got distracted. This is me on a daily basis, just distracted by everything, which is kind of how I work. I get distracted so easily, and it always takes my full attention. So if I get distracted by my work, it holds all my attention. I found out this year I have ADHD, which probably explains why I struggled so much in school. Oh gosh, this is distracting from the interview. [Laughs.] No, this is good for visibility. I struggled a lot in school because I was always distracted by my own daydreams. ADHD is often undetected in girls, since it’s not so much exhibited as fidgeting but, for me at least, spacing out and daydreaming. It was always really hard for me to focus if I wasn’t engaged. Thankfully, I’ve finally found a career where I can actually utilize that skill. My daydreaming is how I come up with my VR design ideas, and I’m so glad I can use it to help others. Maybe I didn't perform too well in school, but hey, look where I am now!

That's so great that you were able to channel it in that way. How did you go from struggling in school to doing VR?

When I first tried on a VR headset, I was like, "This is the future. I need to do whatever I can to learn about this." I decided to study computer science, but it was such a huge struggle. Not a lot of people know this, but I was on academic probation for a while. I had a 1.8 GPA at one point, because I was too shy to ask for help. I would get distracted and, overall, I felt discouraged. So I stopped studying computer science for a little bit.

When I took a break from school, I decided I wanted to try making a game. I wanted to do something just for fun, and I was determined to fix my bad habits. So with some friends, I created a self-help game at AthenaHacks, a women’s hackathon. For 24 hours, I was just immersed in my work. I had never felt that way about anything in my life, where I was just zoned in, in my own world, doing the thing I love. And that's when I realized, I think it's game development. I think this is what I want.

So I spent the year teaching myself [game development], and I got a lot more comfortable using the Unity game engine. I knew I eventually wanted to be a VR developer, so I saved up and invested in myself to learn the skills at Make School’s VR Summer Academy. That smaller learning environment opened up the world for me. It boosted my confidence more than anything to have the support I needed. I was like, "Maybe my grades aren’t so great, but I know how to make VR." And the world needs VR right now.

So when I went back to my university, I thought, "I'll try again. I'm going to go back to computer science.” And so far so good. I'm into my fourth year at UCLA studying cognitive science, linguistics, computer science and digital humanities. It sounds like a lot, but they're all related in the sense that they're all connected to VR, because VR is mainly a study of the mind and how we perceive reality. It’s not so much about computer science; you really have to know more about humans to create good VR.

So I went from literally the worst student in the class to killing it at NASA. [Laughs.]

Sorry, ugh, that was a lot. Haha, I look at a bird and go off on a tangent. That's my life.

So going back to your JPL internship, how are you using your VR skills to help scientists and engineers?

Michelle Vo in the InSight testbed at JPL

Michelle Vo poses for a photo with InSight Testbed Lead, Marleen Sundgaard. Image courtesy Michelle Vo | + Expand image

I’m interning in the Ops Lab, and the project I've been working on primarily is called OnSight. OnSight uses Microsoft’s HoloLens [mixed-reality software] to simulate walking on Mars. Mars scientists use it to collaborate with each other. We had “Meet on Mars” this morning, actually. On certain days, Mars scientists will put on their headsets and hang out virtually on Mars. They see each other. They talk. They look at Mars rocks and take notes. It's based on images from the Curiosity Mars rover. We converted those images to 3-D models to create the virtual terrain, so through VR, we can simulate walking on Mars without being there.

For a few weeks, I worked on another project with the InSight Mars lander mission. We took the terrain model that's generated from images of [the landing site] and made it so the team could see that terrain on top of their testbed [at JPL] with a HoloLens. For them, that's important because they're trying to recreate the terrain to … Wait, I recorded this.

[Michelle quickly scans through the photo library on her phone and pulls up a video she recorded from JPL’s In-Situ Instruments Laboratory. Pranay Mishra, a testbed engineer for the InSight mission, stands in a simulated Mars landscape next to a working model of the lander and explains:]

“When InSight reaches Mars, we're going to get images of the terrain that we land on. The instruments will be deployed to that terrain, so we will want to practice those deployments in the testbed. One of the biggest things that affects our deployment ability is the terrain. If the terrain is tilted or there are rocks in certain spots, that all has a strong effect on our deployment accuracy. To practice it here, we want the terrain in the testbed to match the terrain on Mars. The only things we can view from Mars are the images that we get back [from the lander]. We want to put those into the HoloLens so that we can start terraforming, or “marsforming,” the testbed terrain to match the terrain on Mars. That way, we can maybe get a rough idea of what the deployment would look like on Mars by practicing it on Earth.”
Michelle Vo in the InSight testbed at JPL

Michelle Vo stands in the InSight testbed at JPL with testbed engineers Drew Penrod (left) and Pranay Mishra (right). Image courtesy Michelle Vo | + Expand image

› Learn more about how scientists and engineers are creating a version of InSight's Mars landing site on Earth

They already gave us photos of Mars, which they turned into a 3D model. I created an AR project, where you look through the HoloLens – looking at the real world – and the 3D model is superimposed on the testbed. So the [testbed team] will shovel through and shape the terrain to match what it’s like on Mars, at InSight’s landing site.

Did you know that this was an area that you could work in at JPL before interning here?

OnSight was a well known project in the VR/AR space, since it was the first project to use the Microsoft Hololens. I remember being excited to see a talk on the project at the VRLA conference. So when I finally got on board with the team, I was super excited. I also realized that there’s room for improvement, and that’s OK. That’s why I'm here as an intern; I can bring in a fresh look.

One of the things I did on this project was incorporate physical controllers. My critique when I first started was, "This is really hard to use." And if it's hard for me to use as a millenial, how is this going to be usable for people of all ages? I'm always thinking in terms of accessibility for everybody. Through lots of testing, I realized that people need to be touching things, physical things. That's what OnSight lacked, a physical controller. There were a lot of things that I experimented with, and eventually, it came down to a keyboard that allows you to manipulate the simulated Mars rovers. So now with OnSight, you can drive the [simulated] rovers around with a keyboard controller and possibly in the future, type notes within the application. Previously, you had to tap into the air to use an AR keyboard, and that's not intuitive. We still need to touch the physical world.

How has this project compared with other ones that you've done elsewhere?

Well, I was the only girl developer intern on the team. I’m always battling stereotypes wherever I go and usually on other projects, I'm fighting for my place and fighting to fit in. But at JPL, everyone’s here because they love what they do. People are secure in themselves, and they see me as an equal. They're like, "Michelle has good ideas. Let's bring her to the table." Right off the bat, I felt accepted and, for the first time ever, the imposter-syndrome voice went away. I felt like I could just be myself and actually have a voice to contribute. You know, I might be small, I might be the shortest one, but I'm mighty. It’s been such a positive and supportive environment. I've had an incredible internship and learned so much.

What has been the most unique experience that you've had at JPL?

Working in the Ops Lab has been such a unique experience. Every day, we’re tinkering with cutting-edge technology in AR and VR. I am so thankful to have my mentors, Victor Luo and Parker Abercrombie, who give me the support and guidance I need to grow and learn. Outside of the Ops Lab, I also had the unique opportunity to meet astronaut Kate Rubins and talk about VR with her. I had lunch with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine when he visited JPL. And working with the InSight mission and Marleen Sundgaard, the mission’s testbed lead, was especially cool. I can't believe I was able to use my skills for something the Mars InSight mission needed. Being able to say that is something I'm really proud of. And seeing how far I came, from knowing nothing to being here, makes me feel happy. If I can transform, anyone can do this too, if they choose to work hard, follow their own path and see it in themselves to take a risk.

What advice do you have for others looking to follow your path?

Listen to your gut. Your gut knows. It’s easy to feel discouraged. But trust me, you’re not alone. You’ve always got to stay optimistic about finding a solution. I've always been someone who has experimented with a lot of things, and I think learning is something you should definitely experiment with. If the classroom setting is not for you, try teaching yourself, try a bootcamp, try asking a friend – just any alternative. You just have to know how you learn best.

My biggest inspiration is the future. I think about it on a daily basis. The future is so cool. I know I have a very cheery, idealistic view on life, but I think, "What's wrong with that?" as long as you can bring it back to reality, which I think I’ve been able to do.

Speaking of that, what is your ultimate dream for your career and your future?

I was raised in the Bay Area, and I grew up in Santa Clara so the tech culture of Silicon Valley was inescapable. I love Silicon Valley, but we have our problems. We have a huge homelessness issue. I’ve always thought, “We have the brightest engineers and scientists doing the most amazing, crazy things, yet we still can't alleviate homelessness.” Everybody deserves a place to sleep and shower. People need to have their basic needs met. I’d love to see some sort of VR wellness center that could help people train for a job, overcome fears and treat mental health.

That's my idealistic dream, but back to present-day dreams: I'm actually doing a 180. I'm leaving tech for a little bit, and I’m taking Fall quarter off. I'll start back at UCLA in January, but I'm taking a leave to explore being an artist. I'm writing a science-fiction play about Vietnamese-American culture. I was inspired by my experience here at JPL. I feel really optimistic about the future of technology, which is funny because science fiction usually likes to depict tech as something crazy, like an apocalypse or the world crashing down. But I'm like, “Vietnamese people survived an actual war, and they’re still here.” For my parents and grandparents, their country as they knew it came crashing down on them when they were just about my age. They escaped Vietnam by boat and faced many hardships as immigrants who came to America penniless and without knowing English. For them to have survived all of that and sacrificed so much to make it possible for me to be here is incredible. I think it’s a testament to how, despite the worst things, there's always good that continues. I’m so grateful and thankful for my family. I wouldn’t be here living my dream without them, and I want to create a play about that.

It's funny. Before I used to be so shy, so shy. I used to be that one kid who would never talk to anybody. So it's kind of nice to see what happens when the introvert comes out of her shell. And this is what happens. All of this. [Laughs.]


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

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

TAGS: Women in STEM, Higher Education, College, Students, STEM, VR, AR, Technology, Mars, InSight, Curiosity, Women in STEM

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

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

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

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

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

Erika Flores poses with her science poster

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

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

What are you hoping to do once you graduate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What got you interested in science and engineering initially?

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

Is anyone in your family involved in engineering or science?

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

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

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

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

Erika Flores demonstrates how to make a chemical garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

  • Kim Orr
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Allison Ayad in her workspace at JPL

The Starshade project aims to do pretty much what the name suggests: suppress the light from distant stars so scientists can learn more about the planets that surround them – including whether they’re likely to support life. In practice, it requires building a giant, precisely shaped structure that can unfurl from a relatively tiny package and fly in perfect sequence with a space telescope. Interns have been key to making the idea a reality. The team has brought in more than 40 interns in the past seven years. We already caught up with three-time Starshade intern Christopher Esquer-Rosas, who is using his origami skills to help a full-scale model of the giant sunflower-shaped structure unfurl. Meanwhile, intern Allison Ayad, a mechanical engineering student at Pasadena City College, is creating a working miniature model to narrow in on the design. Fellow intern Evan Kramer met up with Ayad to find out how she’s contributing to the project and how she’s bringing what she’s learning back to school.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

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

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on a project called Starshade, which is a 26-meter diameter, flower-shaped structure we want to send to space to help us get images of exoplanets, [planets outside our solar system]. With these images, we could learn more about exoplanets and see if they could potentially harbor life.

So Starshade is a sort of spacecraft?

Yeah, it is! Starshade would fly out and position itself between a space telescope and a star. Its shape would suppress the light from the star so the spacecraft could get direct images of the exoplanets around it. It's similar to when you try to take a picture outside, and the Sun washes out the image. If you block the light from the Sun, then you can see everything in more detail. That's pretty much what Starshade would do.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Every day is very different. What I am working on is making a mini, fully deployable Starshade for interactive purposes, so we can show all the different stages of deployment. It will sort of be the first of its kind.

When I come in, I usually do work on my computer with [software] like Solidworks. Then, I do a lot of rapid prototyping with the use of 3D printers and laser cutters to test out all the little, moving components that are going into the real model.

I spend some of my time helping with the big structure that's out here. [She points to the warehouse-like space where the team is assembling a full-scale version of Starshade, which is about the size of a baseball diamond fully unfurled.] But most of the time, I'm working on the mini one. At least once a day, I’ll talk with my mentor, David Webb, about the ideas that I have on how to make things work. We'll bounce ideas off each other, then I'll have stuff to think about for the next day.

Allison Ayad stands under the support structure for a full-scale model of Starshade

Ayad stands under the support structure for the full-scale model of Starshade. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Evan Kramer | + Expand image

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

I’ve been here for a year and a half now, and I think the Starshade lab is the coolest at JPL, but I'm a little bit biased. It's really cool because we have a bunch of prototypes everywhere, so you get to see what Starshade would look like in real life. And there are a bunch of interactive models that you can play with to see all the different deployment stages.

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

The full Starshade isn’t really finished being designed yet, so a lot of the problems that [the team that is building the full-scale model] is facing, I'm also facing with the mini one. The ideas that I'm thinking through could potentially help with the real flight-model design.

How has the work you’ve done here influenced you back at school?

When I first started interning here, I actually didn't have a lot of the core class requirements [for my major] done. So a lot of the terms and concepts that people were using at JPL were still new to me. Then when I took the classes, all [the lessons from my internship] came back, and I was like, whoa, I already kind of learned this stuff and got a hands-on approach to it. I'm a very hands-on learner, so having that previous experience and then learning more of the math behind it helped with that learning process.

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

I’d like to go to Mars just because we're so close to doing it. It'd be cool to see what's there. I personally think there's a really good chance there was once life on Mars. If I could go and see for myself, that would be pretty awesome.


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

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

TAGS: Women in STEM, Internships, Interns, Students, College, STEM, Opportunities, Starshade, Exoplanets, Engineering

  • Evan Kramer
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Ryan Loper holds a optical test-bed component he designed during his internship at JPL.

Update: Sept. 4, 2018 – Ryan Loper was offered and accepted a full-time position with the team he's interned with for the past two summers. He'll start his new role at the laboratory after he graduates in September 2019!


During his seven years in the Marine Corps, traveling around the world, Ryan Loper saw how much an education could change a person’s life. When his service ended, he enrolled in community college, just to, “take a couple of classes and see,” he said – until it ended up changing the course of his life as well. Now a student at Stanford, a two-time JPL intern, and an alumnus of and volunteer for the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program, Loper is helping build a test bed for a next-generation space telescope. We caught up with him to find out how he made the transition from military to student life and what he hopes his future at JPL will bring.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on an optical test bed, where we’re trying to make a telescope similar to one we would put in space, but a much smaller size.

What's the ultimate goal of the project?

We’re preparing for the next-generation space telescope. We want to get to what they call “first light,” where you get light to come through the telescope and detect it. Eventually, the team wants to take [the telescope] out and observe a star with it and be able to make measurements.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

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

What's a typical day like for you?

They're almost never the same. Just about every day, we have a morning meeting with the principal investigator, the systems engineer for the project and two other interns working on the same project. We talk about where we got yesterday, what our plan is for the day and things we might have to consider going forward. We're producing drawings now on some of the test-bed parts. We're trying to find the right design. Then, as much as I can, I try to get out onto the lab and meet new people and reconnect with some of the people who I met during my internship last year.

You were in the Marines before going to college. Can you tell me a bit about that experience and how it shaped your career path?

Yes. I did very poorly in high school. I didn't have anybody in my family who went to college, and I didn't see the benefit of an education. So two weeks after I graduated, I went to boot camp with the Marine Corps. I spent seven years in the Marines, where I got to travel a lot and go to different parts of the world. I saw how much a lack of an education could hurt an entire group of people. I also saw how a little bit of an education could give someone more opportunities than they ever had. I also happened to have really good mentors while I was in the Marines who pushed me to learn more than what was required. It instilled this hunger for knowledge that's really helped me be successful as a student and ultimately lead to me being able to start at community college and transfer to Stanford to finish my undergraduate degree. It’s also what makes me really enjoy JPL, because it's that same type of mentality here. There are a lot of really cool things going on here, but it's not like we just sit back and watch the cool stuff happen. We're doing the stuff no one has done before, and we’re continuing to learn and iterate.

It’s often challenging for veterans to take that next step after they return from their service. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

It's really difficult when you're first leaving the service because you've been surrounded by a lot of like-minded people in the sense that you have a mission and you're executing that mission to the best of your team's ability. I didn't struggle with this because I happened to go to a community college that had a great veteran population, but some friends of mine who went to different schools felt like there wasn't that camaraderie. I think that's the biggest thing that hinders us when we come out. We're used to that sense of camaraderie and then we go to a place where that's not there, and it leaves you feeling alone.

Ryan Loper with his wife and kids.

Loper poses for a photo with his wife and kids on a trip to Yosemite National Park. Photo courtesy of Ryan Loper. | + Expand image

Some of the situations that you face and see while you're deployed in the military are not what the normal 18-,19-, 20-year-old sees, so it makes it hard to talk to others. I had a lot of trouble with that. I was very antisocial when I first came out of the service, so I did a lot of counseling through [Veterans Affairs]. My wife has been a huge help and has been very patient with me working through it. [It was also helpful] having a good group of friends who are veterans, who I got together and studied with. I think the biggest thing you can do is try to find other veterans or just people you can have in your corner because it does get difficult.

Did you pick the community college you went to because it had a large veteran population?

No. When I first got out, I wasn't sure I was going to go to college. I figured I would take one or two classes [at a community college] and see how it went. My wife went to get information and sign me up and told me there's this whole veterans resource center and that I should go meet this guy Jordan. The first time I went, I was just super uncomfortable. I was there for five or 10 minutes, and I left. I think I made it halfway through the semester and the classes started to get really difficult. So, I finally went back and met Jordan and the community there and right away got involved. I ended up becoming the vice president of our student veterans organization during my time there. But I didn't choose the school because they have a good veteran population. The location and timing just worked out really well.

What made you decide that you wanted to study STEM?

Growing up, I always got in trouble for tinkering. I grew up on a tiny farm. We didn't have any money, but we always had broken stuff lying around. So I would take stuff apart and try to put it together with other things. And then I've always been interested in space and military aircraft. I worked on military aircraft for part of my career. I've just always had that desire to poke my head into things and figure out how they work and take things apart. So STEM kind of seemed like the right thing to get into. It gives me an ability to dig into math and physics, which I enjoy, but also poke around with the creative side of things.

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/images/news/ryanloper_action-web.jpg

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

When you started at community college and took those first couple courses, were they STEM-related?

Since I'd been out of school for so long, I had to take a test to see where I would start. I started in trigonometry, which is low on the totem pole for engineering majors, but I had an amazing trig professor, Professor Marquez. He walked into this trig-prep class and said, “Don't think of trig as a subject you have to learn in math, think of it as a superpower.” He taught us to think, not to repeat. So later on, it made other classes much easier.

This is your second internship at JPL, and before that, you were here as part of the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars, or NCAS, workshop. Can you talk a little bit about that and why you've continued to come back to JPL?

I have a friend, Dave, who's also here [as an intern]. He was at the community college I went to. He told me how he was coming to JPL for this program called NCAS. I went online and signed up for it. I did the online class and got invited to come to JPL [for the NCAS onsite workshop]. During the workshop, I fell in love with everything that we got exposed to: the missions that NASA was doing and what JPL was working on. We had guest speakers come in and interns talk about their experiences at JPL. It wasn't necessarily that I thought, that’s the job I want to do. It was, those are the people who I want to work with.

Ryan Loper poses in front of a light sculpture at JPL with other NCAS participants

Loper (left) first came to JPL as part of the NCAS workshop for community college students. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

After that program, I stayed in contact with my mentor, Otto Polanco. He offered me an opportunity to come to JPL that following summer. I thought, I'll probably go there to do all the stuff that he doesn't want to do, like Excel sheets and trade studies. But then, I showed up, and I was basically handed the keys to the Ferrari and told to go drive. It was the first time with a work experience, especially an internship, where I came in and it was like, “Here's an engineering problem, go figure it out.” I loved it.

I was also invited that summer to be a student aid for NCAS at JPL, so I got to be behind the scenes and see all of the work that the JPL Education Office puts into the program. They do a fantastic job and it makes it that much more special for all the students.

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

The most unique is being surrounded by people whose work you're reading [in school] and who are guiding what industry is doing – but they're approachable. Like yesterday, I sat with Adam Steltzner, who lead the entry, descent and landing for the Mars rover Curiosity. I had read his book, and last summer, I ran into him and briefly introduced myself and asked if he wanted to meet. He met me for coffee, and then he met me again this year and we got to catch up.

For me, a big thing that I'm considering is the work-life balance because I have a wife and two children. At JPL, you have that opportunity to do really amazing things and work with amazing people and get to be a husband and a father. And you don't have to sacrifice that to do something amazing. That's been unique to me – to find a place that has the culture fit that I've been looking for.

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

Hopefully, the project that I’m working on will help ensure success for the next space-based telescope. I feel as though I get to be part of the future, the next generation of space explorers and what we're going to find out there.

What's your ultimate career goal?

To be an NCAS mentor. That would mean I'd have to be a full-time JPL employee in a position where I'd be able to dedicate some of my time to support the next group of NCAS students, who are going to become interns and then come to JPL full time.

Last question: If you could go anywhere in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

Ooh, if I could go anywhere in space? I would want to go to the farthest point in space from Earth and look back to realize how insignificant it is and how much I take for granted.


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, Veterans, College, STEM, STEM Education

  • Kim Orr
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Interns and their mentors celebrated a successful summer at a mentor-appreciation event held at JPL.

When the new crop of summer interns started showing up at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, this past June, they joined the more than 2,000-plus students placed across NASA’s 10 field centers, instantly becoming part of the NASA family.

“They may not be together geographically, but these interns are getting this unique experience all over the country,” said Katherine Brown, public affairs officer for education at NASA Headquarters.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

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

But between the challenging workloads, exciting education opportunities and inspiring culture at JPL, interns who come to the laboratory often see only one piece of the NASA puzzle. Intern and University of Colorado Boulder astrophysics student Maya Yanez has spent the past two summers at JPL – one working on describing potential radical chemistry on Kuiper Belt objects, and one helping to identify potential landing sites on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

“You get the chance to be a little sprocket in this massive machine of making things happen at JPL, but then you can kind of lose sight of the fact that JPL is one component of NASA, and there are hundreds of interns at other centers doing comparable things,” Yanez said.

This year, NASA Headquarters’ internship and communications coordinator Christine Linsinbigler saw opportunities to bring the centers together. She organized an agency-wide live feed of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s intern town hall at Goddard Space Flight Center on July 26, and an ISS downlink Q&A – where interns got to pre-record questions for astronauts to answer live from the space station – on July 30.

“With National Intern Day on July 26, we were able to roll the events into one big intern week,” Linsinbigler said.

Answers from the Administrator

This was the first year a NASA administrator conducted a NASA-wide town hall, where interns from all of the centers could submit questions in short videos. Yanez was selected to live-tweet Bridenstine’s responses from the JPL Education Office’s @NASAJPL_Edu handle so students, JPLers and members of the public could see some of the responses.

“The administrators’ town hall was really important because, for the first time, I had an opportunity as an undergrad to ask about our future and the future of space funding,” said Yanez, who also hopes to one day run for office. “This is a person who has power over our future. I think it’s important to keep that communication between science and politics.”

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

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

Yanez was also appreciative of the administrator’s openness to discuss inclusion and diversity in the field, and how NASA plans to maintain its current programs.

“I’m half Mexican, a female in STEM, a first-generation college student, and low income, so I check off a lot of those representative boxes,” Yanez said. “It was nice that he spent as much time on that question as he did. He talked about how it mattered to him and how it should matter to all of us.”

At NASA Headquarters, inclusion and diversity within NASA starts with the intern program, which saw its largest and most diverse applicant pool of interns this summer. Brown said it followed a concerted effort of making the public aware that an internship at JPL, Langley or Johnson is more than just for STEM students – there are opportunities in communications, human resources, education and other fields that are all relevant to how the agency runs.

“We’ve showcased interns on our social media, we held a Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ Q&A with Johnson Space Center Flight Director Allison Bollinger, and we’re hoping that including more events like the administrator town hall and ISS downlink will continue to attract a diverse group to NASA,” Brown said.

Questions to Space

When JPL intern Zachary Luppen heard about the ISS downlink – and that he would have a chance to ask an astronaut a question – he already had pages of questions lined up.

An intern takes a photo at the ISS Downlink watch party at JPL

A watch party was held at JPL for an ISS downlink with NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

Zachary Luppen stands in an anechoic chamber at JPL

Zachary Luppen stands in an anechoic chamber at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

Christopher Jia-Kuan Yen poses with his mentor, Abigail Fraeman, during a mentor appreciation event held at JPL

Christopher Jia-Kuan Yen poses with his mentor, Abigail Fraeman, during a mentor appreciation event held at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

“I had always wanted to ask an astronaut something, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it,” said Luppen, who is entering his senior year as an astronomy physics major at the University of Iowa. “I really want to go into space, and here I suddenly have this opportunity to throw a question at an astronaut and get it answered.”

The pre-recorded video questions from interns across NASA centers were played during the ISS downlink on July 30, and JPL interns gathered to hear astronaut Ricky Arnold’s responses. Luppen asked Arnold if there were any specific pointers he could give NASA interns who want to be astronauts themselves, and go to the ISS, the Moon or even Mars.

“The temptation is to specialize early, and it’s great to find your passion and pursue it, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture,” Arnold said. “NASA is looking for people with very diverse backgrounds, who have done a lot of different things in different environments with different people.”

Luppen said the ISS downlink was special, as it was one of many “bucket list” items he was able to check off during his summer at JPL, but the work he conducted at the laboratory was more important to his future. Over his 10 weeks at JPL, Luppen worked on test procedures for the dual-frequency radar instrument (REASON) slated to ride aboard NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft. That allowed him to connect with a group of employees who are really doing what he wants to do.

“At Iowa, we’re building parts of the Europa [Clipper mission] there too, but we’re not working on spacecraft to the degree that JPL is,” Luppen said. “I’m here with like-minded people, fantastic scientists and engineers who are working on these projects, and it’s just great to finally be at a center where it’s so productive. It’s almost like chaos, but it’s so cool. I mean, how many missions did we have launch this summer? So, it’s just like, we’re so busy, and I’m getting to be a part of it this summer.”

Intern Christopher Jia-Kuan Yen, a senior geology-chemistry student at Brown University, spent his summer working with Deputy Project Scientist Abigail Fraeman on remote sensing and imaging instruments aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. As for the question he asked of astronaut Ricky Arnold, it was – of course – imagery based.

“I wanted to know, based on what he’s seen from the windows of the ISS, where he would most like to visit on Earth,” Yen said.

Arnold responded that the list seems to get longer every day he’s on the station, but the mountains of Peru, Chile and Argentina have caught his eye. “I guess I’ll have to head down there and check it out someday,” Yen said with a smile. In retrospect, Yen viewed the ISS Downlink as one more example of how special interning at JPL can be.

“There are just so many things going on here,” he said. “Between the work you’re doing, the lectures – I mean, we had the Mars helicopter team present to us – and the events like the ISS Downlink, I don’t think you’re getting opportunities like those at your university internship.”

This summer, 400 JPL employees participated as mentors, providing guidance to the 700 interns working in various fields across the laboratory.

To learn more about this year’s interns, visit:


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, Student Programs, STEM, STEM Education, College Students

  • Taylor Hill
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Becca Foust in the test bed at Caltech

Using a test bed that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, Becca Foust is exploring ways to bring spacecraft components together in space. Here’s how the NASA Space Technology Research Fellow, who’s earning her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is helping create spacecraft of the future.

What are you working on at JPL?

I like to call it space K’nex, like the toys. We're using a bunch of component satellites and trying to figure out how to bring all of the pieces together and make them fit together in orbit. Then, once they're together, can you pop them apart and make something new? Using many satellites allows for much more versatility than with a conventional single satellite, plus some structures you need are simply too big to fit into the rockets we have today. So this summer, I'm testing my algorithm for assembling satellites on some actual robots in our new test bed.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

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

Tell me about the test bed.

We have five spacecraft simulators that “fly” in a specially designed flat-floor facility. The spacecraft simulators use air bearings to lift the robots off the floor, kind of like a reverse air hockey table. The top part of the spacecraft simulators can move up and down and rotate all around in a similar way to real satellites. All these things combine to let the robots move around using the same components used on real satellites in space. The floor has to be very precisely flat and we have to clean frequently because, if a single hair is on the ground, it will affect the motion of the simulators. We also have two rails with highly articulated robot arms on the side and the back of the room to interact with the simulators as other satellites or as a comet to be mapped.

What happens during the simulations?

Most of what our group does is guidance and control, so telling spacecraft where to go and how to get there. When we're testing those algorithms, it's really important that we know where our spacecraft is because we can't tell it where to go if we don't know where it is. So, in the test bed, our robots are all tracked using a motion capture system. It's sort of like CGI. The system tracks these little reflective dots and tells us very precisely the position and orientation of the object.

So if we're testing a guidance and control algorithm, we will turn on the motion capture system, make sure everything is working, and then we just turn on the robots and press go. Our simulators are autonomous and everything runs on board, so we do a lot of legwork before running experiments to make sure things will run as expected.

What is it that you're looking for during these simulations in the test bed?

Before we had this test bed, we did a ton of simulations on the computer, but it's very different having it work on an actual robot. So we're trying to see that when we run things on the robots, it works the way it did in the simulations. Is it tracking the expected trajectory nicely? Is it computing properly? Is everything working?

Becca Foust in the test bed at Caltech

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

We'll probably end up adding some safeguards in case a command goes astray. We'll probably need to make our algorithms be able to handle issues and faults that come up. That's actually one of the problems we're working on with JPL, increasing satellite autonomy by looking at failures that happen within satellites, trying to figure out what they are and recover from them.

What's the goal of your research?

I hope my research leads to smarter, more efficient satellites for in-space construction and assembly. The algorithm that I'm using is very fuel-efficient and it finds trajectories that aren't really being considered and haven’t been tried yet in space. By watching it in our version of space, we can show that these paths can actually be executed in real space. So maybe we can actually start using these more efficient trajectories and then all of our satellites can live longer, go farther and do more.

What's an average day like for you?

I try to work on some mathematical proofs in the morning when I'm still sharp-ish. So I work on that until I get frustrated. After that, I'll wander over to our lab and do some hands-on robotics-type things, like working on the spacecraft simulators and making them work more efficiently. Then, I'll spend a while teaching our undergraduate interns how to use the Robot Operating System, which runs on all of our robots.

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

I would say meeting people at JPL. There are so many experts in so many different fields. The first summer I was at JPL, there was a presentation on almost exactly my topic. So I got to meet with that speaker, and we set up a meeting time and talked more about it. He had a bunch of really good ideas for my topic and some other people to talk to. One connection sort of leads to another.

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

We're talking imaginary, right? Because I would like to go to space eventually, if I can. I think I would go to – this is probably a really popular answer but – Jupiter’s moon Europa. I’d just want to figure out what on Earth is going on there.


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

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

TAGS: Women in STEM, Intern, Internships, Students, STEM, Engineering, Spacecraft

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

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

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

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

What are you working on at JPL?

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

What's an average day like for you?

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

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

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

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

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

Highest resolution image of Europa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was your own personal inspiration for going into astronomy?

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

Did you know about JPL before that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

TAGS: Women in STEM, Internships, Interns, College, Students, STEM, Science, Engineering, Europa, Europa Clipper, Europa Lander

  • Kim Orr
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JPL intern Zachary Luppen stands in an anechoic chamber

A radar on NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft will be key to finding out if Jupiter's moon Europa is indeed an ocean world, so JPL intern Zachary Luppen is creating ways to test it to perfection. We caught up with Luppen, an astronomy and physics major from the University of Iowa, to find out how he’s helping the team peer below the icy moon’s surface and to hear about his recent brushes with space stardom.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on the integration, testing and automation of the REASON instrument for the Europa Clipper mission. REASON is a radar instrument that will look within the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa to look for water pockets, characterize the moon’s surface and see if we can confirm that there’s an ocean below its surface.

How does the radar work and why is it important for the mission?

The radar performs what’s called interferometry by sending out and receiving signals that create measurable interference patterns. Based on what signal bounces back, we can figure out the composition of the crust.

The radar probably first and foremost is trying to answer whether the moon has an ocean, and will probably help with determining a landing site for a potential future lander. So the Europa Clipper orbiter is sort of this preliminary study for eventually putting something on the surface. The REASON instrument is going to study a large portion of the moon’s surface and look for a landing spot, possibly where the ice is thinnest so we will not have to drill too deep to find water.

Why is NASA especially interested in Europa as a destination to explore?

Europa is a very interesting moon because it's way out at Jupiter, so it's far away from the Sun, and yet, scientists have data to support the notion that it might have liquid water. What allows it to have this water below its icy crust and how deep is that water? How thick is the icy crust? And if we were to drill into the crust, is there the potential to find life below it? Europa very quickly becomes a moon that can transform society on Earth, if we happened to find extraterrestrial life there.

| Watch on YouTube

What’s an average day like for you?

A lot of the work that I do involves programming in a language called Python. The transmitter boards, which are used to generate the signals that would propagate downwards toward Europa, are currently being built at the University of Iowa, and once we get them here at JPL, we're going to have to test them nonstop, see how we can break them, see how we can improve them. Whatever we need to do to make sure we operate perfectly during the mission. A lot of my work involves writing the software that's going to be doing this testing. Other than that, I've been writing programs called GUIs, graphical user interfaces, to interact with the instruments without having to actually touch them. So if you’re not able to go into the cleanroom during testing, then you can just use your computer to type commands.

How did you get involved in the project?

I’m a student at the University of Iowa and our team has been working on the transmitter boards for the past couple of years. I was dying to get involved in spacecraft and by the end of my sophomore year, I finally had the opportunity to do so because I got a grant from the university to pay for research. I started off simply cleaning rooms and putting away parts, which was pretty menial, however, I did learn what the parts were and how to quickly blow them up if you don't use them properly. Then I worked my way up to kitting parts, which is organizing them for our soldering technician. This doesn't sound like a rigorous job, but it's the first task that needs to be done to make a circuit board, and if it's not done properly, nothing else matters because the circuit boards won’t work. So I just kept working on that throughout my junior year and now I'm out here interning.

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

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

Your question was chosen to be broadcast as part of a downlink for NASA interns with astronauts on the International Space Station. What does it mean to know that your question is going to space?

Words that I spoke are going to be shown to astronauts. Pixels showing me and audio from my mouth will be appearing on the International Space Station, so I'm almost riding on the station. In a sense, my dream of going to space is another step toward coming true

Have you had any other JPL or NASA unique experience of note?

I got to meet astronaut Kate Rubins when she visited JPL recently. That was the first time that I'd ever met an astronaut. And I was just like, oh my gosh, I was shaking. Someone told me I could go up and shake her hand and I was like, really, I'm allowed to do that?! And I did. And then I got her autograph afterward.

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

The programming work I’m doing is contributing directly to the testing phase of the Europa mission, which is cool in itself. But also just trying to make as many people aware as possible that the science is going on, that it's worth doing and worth finding out, especially if we were to find life on Europa. That changes humanity forever!

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

Oh my god. The planetary system around the star TRAPPIST-1 is fascinating. The ISS is fascinating. Mars is Mars. Europa is Europa. This is a hard question. I guess, in order to further science, I’d go to Europa. If I could just go to Europa and see if there's life, well then, we’d answer one of the biggest questions ever asked.


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, Higher Education, College, Opportunities, STEM, engineering, Europa Clipper, Europa, Ocean Worlds

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

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

What are you working on at JPL?

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

JPL Interns

Meet JPL Interns

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

What's a typical day like for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

TAGS: Women in STEM, Interns, Internships, College, Higher Education, STEM, Europa, Europa Clipper, Europa Lander, Science

  • Kim Orr
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