Amanda Davidek: Engineering Inspiration at NASA’s Langley Research Center

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had very little understanding of what engineering was. I think I held a fairly stereotypical viewpoint of it: it was something that men did and it involved a lot of math. And what it precisely was that they did, I couldn’t say. It was not something I had considered at all up to that point when I considered potential future careers or what I wanted to study in college. It felt like every day I was bouncing from one idea to the next: doctor, architect, marine biologist. Then one day late in the year, my mom told me that she had signed me up for an event called Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day at Purdue University. I went in with no way of knowing the impact it would have on my future path.

Over the course of the day, my eyes were opened to the seemingly endless possibilities of engineering majors and applications of an engineering degree. I also met groups of intelligent and friendly women who were studying engineering and I listened to their stories about how they made that decision. For the first time, I had some association between myself and the engineering field. I could relate to these women and I started to picture myself in their shoes. I began to fall in love with the idea. I had always enjoyed learning about calculus, chemistry, and biology, but I didn’t realize that I could apply these topics in so many different ways. I also didn’t realize engineering was as much about creativity and innovation as it was about hard science and math. I remember leaving the event and spending the whole two hour car ride home telling my parents about what I had learned. I then spent the next several months googling everything I could about different engineering fields. I ultimately landed on biomedical engineering, as it gave me a chance to explore the medical field in a way I hadn’t previously considered. I honestly haven’t looked back since then; I’m now entering my senior year at Florida Institute of Technology and the program has been a great fit for me and my interests. I’ve also really enjoyed learning about all the different applications of biomedical engineering in human spaceflight. That was one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far: you don’t have to sacrifice one passion for another. My love and interest in space could benefit my degree in biomedical engineering, even if the path wasn’t clear cut. This summer, I’m working at NASA Langley on the Exploration Medical Capability project, enhancing a database of medical supplies, devices, and pharmaceuticals for potential use in long-term human spaceflight missions. There is something incredibly rewarding about finally applying classroom knowledge on real world projects that could have great impact in the future.

I’m so thankful that I had learned about engineering when I did. It’s crazy to look back and see that I didn’t even know the field existed until halfway through high school! I most likely wouldn’t be where I am today if not for that one day many years ago. Now, I volunteer at my local Society of Women Engineers’ Introducing Girls to Engineering events and at local elementary schools in the hopes of impacting those girls in the same way I was. I love witnessing the curiosity and wonder that the girls all seem to share when they see videos of massive rockets taking off or hear stories about projects that the volunteers have worked on. I can’t wait to share what I’ve worked on this summer as a NASA intern at future events. Ultimately, I want to continue to help girls see that the world of STEM is much more expansive than they may think, and that it is open to anyone with passion and curiosity.

Apply for NASA Internships by creating a profile at intern.nasa.gov!

Sunny Panjwani: Finding the Way to NASA’s Johnson Space Center

What keeps you awake at night?

In March of 2015, NASA scientists and researchers of every variety ascended in droves upon the lobby of Hyatt Place, the hotel I was employed with, for the annual Lunar Planetary Science Conference. Imagine staying up in 2012 to watch the Curiosity Mars Rover landing and then just three years later bartending for a table full of the folks who made it possible. Picture yourself struggling to remain professional while a marine biologist and a physicist casually chat about fishing on Europa while you shakily serve them. To be clear, the entire time I was internally combusting with happiness. That’s where my NASA story began.

Touring facilities at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

This journey has been the wildest ride of my life. In 2013, I came out of high school in Houston, Texas, as a certified Emergency Medical Technician – Basic (EMT-B) with sights set towards medical school and the field of space medicine. To keep costs low, I attended a local community college and planned to transfer out as a Biology major after getting my basic courses knocked out. Everything was in motion, and at the time I thought I had my career all mapped out.

In March 2014, everything changed when my father was shot and killed at his place of work. Overnight, my map was erased. I decided medicine was too costly and too time consuming of an endeavor to put my family through. My passions needed to take the backseat. I wanted to provide. I changed my degree plan from Biology to Accounting and kept my head down.

Then, in March 2015 I met Sheri Klug Boonstra, now a dear friend, who at the time was representing Arizona State University and NASA. She took the time to ask about the shine in my eyes when something about science perked my ears up. Late that night, when the bar was closing down, we spoke about the magic of space, the purity of pursuing the truths of the cosmos, and well, just how dang cool the human capacity to explore really is. She left me with a NASA sticker that still sits on my laptop today.
When I got to the University of Texas at Austin, that sticker stared me down into delaying my graduation and diving back into biology just one year out from graduation.

Sunny participating in an outreach event at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

In my final semester of college I applied for a NASA internship with the International Space Station Program Science Office. My GPA wasn’t the best—but my passion and drive were unmatched. One morning my phone rang for an interview, and four days later I ran out in the middle of my Geology lecture—literally in the middle of campus—shouting that I just got my dream job. When I got here that first day, I sat in my car silently with my eyes wet like a very tiny chef was chopping onions underneath them. Six months later and that tiny chef and his onions are still there every time I see the flags at Johnson Space Center. That sticker Sheri gave me years ago now has 10 different NASA stickers to keep it company. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people who have literally left this world, write as a credited author about the economics of space, and have had the honor of serving my country’s finest minds and ideals. The most amazing part of my time here has been reaching out to the public and organizing my own NASA outreach events. Taking the time to listen to the passions of our next generations and exciting students is something that I firmly believe is a responsibility we all carry. Thankfully, NASA continues to support and fortify that endeavor.

It’s not about what gets you through the day. Surveying the sky above, the vast cloak of twinkles wrapped around our world, all I can really think is that there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Looking at that blanket of stars is what it’s taken for me to understand that life isn’t about getting through the day – it’s about finding what keeps you awake at night. For me, that’s NASA.

By Shoyeb “Sunny” Panjwani, NASA JSC Summer 2018 Intern

Find current internship opportunities at intern.nasa.gov!

Nicholas Bense: Nature & Design at NASA’s Glenn Research Center

To drive forth at the edge of erudition – and indeed physical space itself – is one of the highest pursuits available to humanity and absolutely essential to the growth of our species. This is no small undertaking and it is indeed one that requires a diverse team with diversiform abilities. Although my scientific endeavors have evolved a bit over the years, they have always existed against the backdrop of my ultimate dream to work for NASA.

I began my training in the biological sciences with the intention of attending medical school, however, I have since shifted my interests towards field work involving microbiology and geology to participate in NASA’s exobiology/astrobiology efforts. I am currently applying my data science skills developed through my Master’s program in Bioinformatics and experience with large scale genome wide association studies in clinical cancer research towards my internship at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. This work focuses on the development, analytic tools for Biomimetic engineering.

Life is a methodical architect with the power to devise, improvise, and revise its inventions through millennia into eons. Humanity has long drawn inspiration from the lessons mother nature provides us through the myriad of organisms and the strategies they implement, however the field of Biomimicry as a specialized science is still relatively new and developing.

The purpose of our project at the NASA Glenn is to create a tool to aid in the discovery of elements of nature that apply to specific engineering goals as well as facilitation of the design process. My role in this project utilizes my knowledge of machine learning, database systems and R code to develop and refine our tool, known as the Periodic Table of Life (PeTaL).

NASA’s mission also involves the aggregation of information regarding all the sundry species of the Earth, which provides me the opportunity to further my research of extremophiles and other idiosyncratic life forms. Our team consists of members with a wide variety of different backgrounds including engineering, paleontology, botany and computer science.

The impact of biomimetic research can be observed in many sectors of science, technology and industry. Examples range from the development of the first airplane (supposedly inspired through the observation of lateral control in pigeon flight) to more modern and focused cases including studies concerning spider webs for materials engineering. It is very rewarding to be involved with a project that has the capacity to affect all facets of life and witness firsthand how NASA is working to create technologies that not only push the boundaries of space exploration but serve society as a greater whole.

One great aspect of my internship experience has been how it illustrates the many opportunities at NASA that match any professional career. This has been further reinforced through my involvement with the Pathways Agency Cross Center Connections (PAXC) organization, which is composed of interns with incredibly distinct talents from different NASA Centers. NASA certainly provides many ladders to the stars and they all seem to share quite a beautiful view.

Check out current internship opportunities and more intern stories at intern.nasa.gov.

Marissa D’Alonzo: Inspiration, Education, and Learning to Love STEM at Stennis Space Center

For my entire childhood, I was a good math and science student, but thought it was boring and wanted to be a piano teacher. When my eighth grade science teacher, Mrs. Kelly, announced that she was starting a team to compete in the Team America Rocketry Challenge, I had no interest and did not attend the first meeting. The next day, she pulled me aside and said that the team needed more members and since I was an exceptional science student, I had been drafted. I went to my first meeting simply so that I wouldn’t disappoint her, fully expecting to hate it. To my surprise, I was hooked. Building the rockets didn’t seem like my tedious math and science classes, it was fun. We didn’t place in the competition, but her insistence on my participation introduced me to engineering and how enjoyable it could be.

The summer after the competition, I was accepted into a pre-college music festival. By the end of the program, my musical dreams had been shattered. The incredible amount of work needed to become a classical pianist ruined the music for me. I needed something else to focus on, so I signed up for my high school’s rocket team, hearing Mrs. Kelly in my head telling me I could do it. We were significantly better than my middle school’s team, and at the end of my freshman year, we won a spot in NASA’s Student Launch Projects. I spent my entire sophomore year designing the payload experiment and container, with the experience culminating in an amazing trip to Marshall Space Flight Center. Still, I did not see a career for myself in engineering. NASA is far from my home in New York and I still didn’t understand the full scope of STEM.

Marissa D’Alonzo and fellow interns at Stennis Space Center.

After hearing about my experience, I was approached by my physics teacher, Mr. Paino, about joining his fledgling research program. He wanted me and another team member to write a scientific report about our rocket to submit to the Siemens Science Competition. I agreed, and he dedicated massive amounts of time and energy to make sure I succeeded in the program, as well as pushing me to take his AP Physics class. His dedication to me, even when I didn’t always appreciate it or like him, helped me see that I was capable of pursuing engineering. He recommended Northeastern University to me, thinking that I would enjoy the co-op program, which builds time into the curriculum for three six-month internship opportunities. I was accepted, and am currently in my third year majoring in computer engineering.

Ever since participating in the Student Launch Project, I had been interested in working at NASA. After completing my first co-op at a small medical device company, I began seriously researching NASA for my second co-op. I was offered a position in the Office of Education at Stennis Space Center. This experience has solidified my choice of computer engineering as the field I want to go into, as well as giving me experience in both the aerospace and STEM education fields. When I return to Boston, I plan to continue my aerospace work at MIT Lincoln Labs, and my STEM education efforts through outreach to middle schoolers.

Esmarline De Leon Peralta: Looking to the Future at Ames Research Center

My name is Esmarline De León Peralta, a future physician-scientist, flight surgeon and astronaut. I am determined to be part of a group of experts and professionals that will develop key technologies for travel to and living on Mars. Furthermore, I would like to assist in developing the systems necessary to support astronauts’ and communities’ adaptability and survival in the environment on Mars. As an aspiring physician, I believe the advancements created as we continue to research what life could be like on Mars could also impact global health by providing healthcare accessibility and point-of-care technologies for both developing countries and under-developed areas.

I began to appreciate the importance of engagement, perseverance and empathy at a young age, largely due to the lack of resources and opportunities in my home country, the Dominican Republic. I grew up in a house made of tin and wood, where water and electricity were not always accessible, and even my home was not accessible during hurricane season. We moved to Puerto Rico when I was ten years old looking for better educational opportunities and a better life. My mother was denied career opportunities in the field of systems and computer engineering because her degree was obtained in a foreign country. Learning about challenges and inequalities was hard at a young age, but these experiences made me stronger and shaped me into an overachiever and passionate dreamer.

Esmarline outside her workplace at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

My journey to NASA has been one of the most inspiring challenges of my life. My immigration status affected my NASA goals but gave me the courage and inspiration to prepare and become not only a U.S. permanent resident, but an official citizen. I am a 2014 NASA Minority University Research and Education Program (MUREP) scholar, for which I give thanks to Ms. Elizabeth Cartier at ARC for her encouragement and constant support throughout these years.

My NASA interests, along with my desire to address problems in health and understand how chemicals impact the biomedical engineering field made me choose a career in chemical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez. Since 2012, I have had experiences researching in biologically-inspired engineering labs at universities and hospitals such as Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Georgia Institute of Technology and Ohio State University. My interest in biomedical sciences and engineering encourages me to get a M.D.-Ph.D. as a physician-scientist in bioastronautics.

Esmarline at work in a NASA ARC lab.

My passion for biomedical devices using 3-D printing was amplified after researching at Massachusetts General Hospital. When accepted at NASA, I felt that my dreams had come true and I was home where I belonged. I am currently a spring intern at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. I am working in the Entry Systems and Vehicle Development Branch with Dr. Jing Li developing ultra-light weight batteries using 3-D printing technology and nanotechnology. This cutting-edge technology will enable new power and tools for space exploration and building human habitats in space.

During the summer of 2018, I will be interning at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. I will be working with a 3-D printer identical to one currently in space, the n-Scrypt 3-D printer, supporting 3-D multi-materials and process parameters for 3-D printing and helping in the fabrication of conductive inks to print small circuits under the mentorship and guidance of Mr. Curtis Hill.

Thank you, NASA, for being my dream, my present and my future. Here is where I belong! I cannot be more grateful. I have no words to express the happiness of my heart to represent minorities, Hispanics, women in STEM and the next generation of Mars and beyond planets’ explorers. God’s faithfulness last forever. Psalm 100:5

Liz Wilk: Getting the Picture at Goddard Space Flight Center

Ten years ago, I never imagined where I would be at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Graduating from high school in the far south suburbs of Chicago, I received my bachelor’s degree in history, taking film production classes along the way. After spending a summer at an archaeology field school deciding what to pursue for graduate school, I became aware and frustrated with the lack of educational, factual engaging media in regards to history. That led me to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Science & Natural History Filmmaking at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.

The Science & Natural History Filmmaking program at Montana State University is the first program to offer a Master’s of Fine Arts in the area of science and natural history film. Students and alums work on various projects from blue chip films with BBC, programming for National Geographic, independent films about environmental issues and videos for the National Parks Service, NASA and more. The MFA was founded to teach scientists how to make films in a response to watered down science and pseudo-science programming that became prevalent.

While attending Montana State University, I worked on a multitude of projects from a feature film to smaller documentaries on the wildlife of the greater-Yellowstone ecosystem, geology and more. It was while working on a full-dome planetarium film about gravitational waves when I became interested in interning at NASA. While working on the shoot, I had the opportunity to visit Goddard to film 360 video for the film, Einstein’s Gravity Playlist, where I met and learned about the projects that video producers at NASA work on.

Working in videography at NASA has been a great experience with its own challenges that are rewarding when they are conquered. It is hard to compare to other internships, but doing videography is always interesting. One day I might be interviewing an astronaut, the next day I might be helping to broadcast interviews with scientists across the country, and later that day working on the latest edit of a video we might be working on. It’s always exciting to see what each day brings. One thing I would say to remember or point out with film as part of science communication, is how important it is. Most people tend to only think of science communication as strictly journalism, but there are so many more mediums to communicate through which is why I am drawn toward 360 video and virtual reality to explore how it can be used to communicate in a more immersive way.

While at NASA, I had the opportunity to help with live shots in Goddard’s broadcast studio, and recently finished a video piece for the Hubble Space Telescope to celebrate some of the women who are connected to spacecraft. While working on the film, I met many inspiring women who carry the same message of perseverance paying off.

With only a month left, I will be concentrating on 360 video content for Goddard.