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.

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Alys Averette: New Experiences at NASA Glenn Research Center

Alys Averette never thought she’d attend college. But eight years after graduating high school, she found a way to make it happen… and ended up receiving the opportunity of a lifetime to intern at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

I never thought I was going to go to college – let alone have the opportunity to intern with NASA. After graduating high school at sixteen from a boarding school for troubled youth, I immediately went into the workforce. I spent years working in fast food and retail, with no expectation that I would go to college. After working my way up the retail ladder, I landed a general management position that allowed me to finally pay for myself to attend college classes part-time.

Fast forward two years from that point: I have fallen in love with biology and chemistry, and one day I stumbled across the NASA online internship application. Because I planned to pursue a degree in astrobiology and I was anxious to develop some experience in the field (rather than continue down my path in retail), I thought NASA would be the perfect place for me to apply for an internship. I thought, “Wouldn’t this be incredibly cool if I actually got to say that I’m going to work for NASA?” So, I filled out an internship application and I waited.

Nine months went by and I had almost forgotten about that application – until I had a missed phone call and a voicemail saying “Hello, this is Mary Ann from NASA Glenn calling about a possible internship opportunity…”

I called her back immediately. As she explained to me who she was and the kind of work she does, I kept thinking, “This is impossible, this can’t be real, this can’t be happening!” Even though I had no idea what aerogels were at the time, when my soon-to-be mentor asked if I was interested in the project, I said “Yes, of course, but… are you sure you want me? I’m a bit of a non-traditional student. I’m 24 and only a sophomore in undergrad.” She explained to me that she’s had older students, as well as less-experienced students and they have all been successful in this internship. I had five business days to accept or decline the offer and I knew that if I turned it down, I would be disappointed in myself for who knows how long. So, I accepted the offer.

Even though I had wanted to be involved with NASA since I was a kid, I never imagined it would actually be possible — especially after going to a boarding school that nobody’s heard of, working at Taco Bell for several years, and starting college eight years after high school. Yet, here I am, writing this story in my office at NASA Glenn Research Center.

I’ve spent my time here working on synthesizing polyimide aerogels, which are a unique material that serve many purposes for NASA in missions requiring exceptional thermal or acoustic insulation. Even though I did not know much about these materials when I started, I have learned how they are made and what they can be used for, such as conformal antennae substrates, extravehicular suits and habitats, and inflatable decelerators for atmospheric re-entry. It has been a fascinating project and an unbelievable learning experience. I still can’t believe I have been granted this opportunity.

I want people to know my story because I’ve learned firsthand that it’s never too late to be a part of something meaningful or to do something you’ve always wanted to do. This internship with NASA has helped me to understand that and has provided me with a foundation for pursuing all kinds of goals I never thought I could. I hope my story as an intern at NASA can inspire hope in others who, like me, might have thought they were too nontraditional, inexperienced, or different to pursue their dreams and, instead, realize that it’s never too late.

Madison Melton: Launching Her Future at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

“Age is but a number” is a phrase familiar to NASA Kennedy intern Madison Melton. Pursuing NASA opportunities in high school led her to receive a fall 2017 internship at the age of 18.

Growing up, I watched the movie Apollo 13 and experienced the adrenaline of “go for launch.” I was captivated by the enormous power and massiveness of rockets, awed by the roar and thrill of blast off, and intrigued by the vastness of space. For me, this is what my dreams were made of.

Now, I’m a NASA intern and living my dream. Although it was hard getting here, the journey was a labor of love. Along the way, I’ve had much help from my mentor, Scott Pleasants, and my parents, LB and Frieda Melton. These people taught me that no one is ever too young to pursue his or her dreams, and encouraged me to pursue my own. Scott, along with my parents, taught me to trust in the doors that God opens, and soon after that my dream of working at NASA became a reality.

During my junior year of high school at the age of 15, I participated in a class held by NASA called Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars (VASTS). This experience ignited my passion for aerospace and validated my direction and that my dreams are attainable. Graduating as a top VASTS scholar, I was offered the opportunity to go to NASA Langley Summer Academy for a week to develop a mission to Mars. Here, I was with other like-minded students and professionals, pushed myself in new areas, and submerged myself in my dream. Leaving Langley, I was even more determined and focused on becoming an engineer and earning a chance to work at NASA.

After completing several other engineering internships, my chance at NASA came. During the spring semester of my first year of college, my current mentor at NASA, Carlos Alvarado, called to interview me for an internship for fall 2017. I can’t begin to say how honored I am to have been chosen as an intern for NASA. From orientation to tours to seeing rockets being built in the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) and Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), I feel like I am a part of something bigger than myself, and that really drives me to work as hard as I can. Just knowing that I can contribute and help advance humankind by ultimately working towards sending a spacecraft to Mars motivates me to diligently work and excel with the material entrusted to me.

For my internship, I am working with the Launch Services Program (LSP) in the Avionics branch. I evaluate vehicle data from commercial launch providers (i.e. ULA, Space X, and Orbital Sciences) and model that information on IRIS and Winplot scripts/pages. The IRIS system and Winplot telemetry monitoring system are in-house developed applications and serve as the primary tools within LSP for real-time vehicle monitoring during launch vehicle operations, launch day countdowns, and data review. The development of IRIS screens and Winplot scripts is intended to capture recent avionics modifications implemented on current launch providers systems. I support a crew of senior engineers to develop an understanding of launch vehicle system/sub-systems, launch vehicle telemetry, data collection, problem solving, and programming. Also, I monitor launch countdowns, test operations for the rockets, and assess anomalies and issues.

Madison Melton and the "Places We'll Go" banner
At age 18, Madison spend her fall 2017 semester working with the Launch Services Program in the Avionics branch at Kennedy Space Center, where she evaluated and modeled vehicle data from commercial launch providers.

Working with such immense talents and bright minds is inspiring and humbling as well. At eighteen years old, I am the youngest intern in our group for this semester and the youngest in the Launch Services Program Avionics department. I am honored to be here and ready to give NASA my best. Every day, I go to work with a smile on my face, because I think I have the best job in the world.

Xander Levinson: Seeing Beyond at NASA’s Ames Research Center

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is one of NASA’s most highly-anticipated space-borne telescope projects. Its primary objective will be to directly image the oldest galaxies, planets, exoplanets, protostars, and brown dwarfs. The spacecraft, telescope, and its corresponding data receiving systems are still under development, with the complete observatory itself currently projected to launch in the spring of 2019.

I began my college education pursuing a linguistics degree at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, but withdrew for personal and financial reasons after three years. I joined the workforce with a major international retailer until 2009’s recession, at which point I was laid off (then rehired, then laid off again). At this point, I knew retail was not the life for me. I decided to go all-in and chase my passion: SPACE! I started community college at both Golden West College (GWC) and Orange Coast College (OCC) in Orange County, California. It was at GWC that I was introduced to NASA’s educational outreach programs. I cannot emphasize enough the impact these opportunities have had on my life. Through a series of rigorous applications and elimination processes, I had the double honor of being selected to participate in two community college outreach programs at NASA/JPL: the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Undergraduate Scholars (JPLUS) program in the summer of 2015, followed by the National Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program in the spring of 2016.

It is absolutely because of my involvement in these programs that I had the confidence to push myself in school, and to apply for this internship at NASA Ames Research Center. I graduated from GWC with an A.A. in Chemistry and an A.S. in Mathematics; and from OCC with an A.S. in Physics and an A.S. in Astronomy – the first such degree ever conferred by that institution. As I pursue a bachelor’s in astrophysics and a minor in Earth and Planetary Sciences nearby at UC Santa Cruz (Go Banana Slugs!), it has become more and more apparent that my dream career will have me involved with exoplanet discovery and classification programs.

Of course, being a major Trekkie, my absolute dream would be to physically travel to these worlds to analyze them personally. However, since that technology is not currently available, I am happy to work with high-quality spectroscopy data in the meantime. Everyone loves pretty pictures, right? So, this opportunity at Ames was one I could not allow to slip through my hands. Thankfully, I was selected and am excited and proud to work with Tom Greene and his team (including my partner intern Stephanie Striegel from San Jose State University) on the James Webb Space Telescope project.

My goals as an intern on this project are to implement and refine the pipeline for incoming data transmissions (once the telescope is launched), facilitate data reduction of received downlink information, and to provide automated statistical analysis of data. In short, my job is to automate the systematic, efficient identification and classification of substellar objects – with much greater clarity and accuracy than ever before. In order to accomplish this seemingly daunting task, my teammate and I run Python scripts to analyze and sort spectroscopic data, which we will eventually use in describing (in great detail) the constructions and atmospheres of extrasolar bodies. Currently, we are calibrating our codes using sample data from a recent batch of tests run on the instrumentation itself. We plan to further refine it using other data reduction codes provided by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in the near future.

I think the most exciting part of this project is that it is very likely that our work will be how we may someday identify “Earth 2.0” out there! This project is both humbling and inspiring. The work comes with a realization of how small and young we truly are, but it also amazes me how much information we are able to glean from a small beam of light from such distant places. Years from now, when I look at the images that JWST will present to us, I will know that I had a part in making it happen. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than the knowledge that my efforts here at NASA Ames will contribute immeasurably to humanity’s quest to understand the universe, as well as our place in it.