From studying engineering to working on rovers that will land on other planets

By Ramona Barajas-Villar

Women’s History Month: Recognizing some of our intern leaders
At NASA we celebrate Women’s History Month by recognizing some of our interns and their contributions to NASA.  Karen Mae Baldonado. Karen is an intern at NASA’s Langley Research Center and a senior at the City College of New York where she studies Mechanical Engineering. 

Meet Karen Mae Baldonado, an intern at NASA's Langley Research Center.
Credits: Karen Mae Baldonado.

Tell us about your intern journey to NASA or anything you would like to share.

Throughout my academic career, I wasn’t sure what sector I wanted to go into after college. I was always interested in space as a kid, but as I got older it seemed like having a career in space was out of reach. I didn’t know any women in the space sector, let alone any women in engineering careers. As I was looking for internships in my senior year of Mechanical Engineering, with no prior internship or even job experience, I decided to take a chance and apply to NASA, not expecting anything but knowing I tried. I was surprised to end up with offers to two different NASA internships! I work everyday in school and in my NASA internship to make sure the work I am doing is the best possible work I can do, for NASA and the communities I represent- women in STEM, my school the City College of New York, and women of color. More than anything I want more women in STEM and more women in NASA. I want to make sure by excelling in my engineering major and interning at NASA, that not only do I create a path for younger women to follow, but that there will be younger women to follow. I want more women in STEM to see their worth and go after what they really want, like I did.

What is your role on your current project?

I study Entry, Descent, and Landing on different planetary bodies for entry vehicles, focusing on a rover that uses tensegrity. This rover is designed by my mentor and team. For EDL, I conduct different simulations to examine the system analyses of the rover. My work focuses especially on Titan and Mars.

How does your project tie into the Moon To Mars mission? The Artemis program? Any other NASA mission?

My work for this project is able to determine different system modules for Entry, Descent, and Landing on any planetary body. It can be applied to the Moon or Mars. For my project, one of the planets I focus especially on is Mars. Furthermore, a rover that uses tensegrity is ideal for entering planetary bodies with higher risks, such as a rougher surface or atmospheric conditions that aren’t ideal, as the design of the rover allows any way of landing to be an optimal position. The rover is able to adjust itself to any surface, able to go over big craters for example, and thus is a possible rover for future missions to further planetary bodies or the Moon and Mars. 

How are you staying connected to other interns? NASA employees?

I joined PAXC on Discord and Teams and enjoy learning about others through the discussions on Discord. I also join the Networking sessions hosted by Langley Research Center’s Intern Coordinators.

What student organization (school, community, etc.) has helped you develop professionally in your STEM/non-STEM journey?

The Society of Women Engineers in my school City College of New York played a big role in my STEM journey. Their meetings contain a lot of valuable lessons and information. Their greatest contribution to my STEM journey is their meetings where they brought people who have worked or work with NASA. I’ve learned from past NASA interns and current NASA employees. Hearing about their stories is what pushed me to apply to NASA in the first place. Being around other women engineers with big aspirations also greatly contributed to my STEM journey. My school’s American Society of Mechanical Engineering club also greatly helped me develop professionally in my STEM journey. ASME has taught me not only about Solidworks and Computational Fluid Dynamics lessons that I haven’t learned in class, but also the “how-to’s” of internships, interviews, and jobs. Their lessons were especially helpful for my NASA applications and interview!

How do you feel interning during #CountdownToMars?!

Interning during the #CountdownToMars has brought an experience I couldn’t get elsewhere. I’m not just someone who happens to be alive during this event, but I’m someone who actually gets to hear from the people who worked on Perseverance and NASA directly. NASA has held events for their interns to learn about the work put into Perseverance. I’m getting a chance I couldn’t get elsewhere or at any other time and I’m extremely grateful for that!

Provide a quote about how you feel about your role at NASA.

At NASA, I feel like I belong regardless of my identity. I know I’m here because of what I have achieved and because of my passion to work at NASA. The work I am doing is important and is not just busywork. At NASA, I’m learning so much from my project but also by asking questions, never feeling scared to show I don’t know something. One of my greatest hopes is that my work here as an intern will inspire younger women to go towards a career in STEM.

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!

Samuel Mohler at NASA’s Langley Research Center: Greater Than Grades

Grades are important to college students: It usually signifies whether or not the course material is understood. But Samuel Mohler realized his GPA was dictating his life… so he stopped looking at it.

My name is Sam Mohler, and I am in my second internship at NASA. I graduated with a double major in mechanical engineering and mathematics along with a minor in physics from Portland State University. I plan to attend graduate school in the future, but for now I am soaking up as much research experience as I can at NASA. I got to work in numerical optimization at the Glenn Research Center and here at Langley I am working in the Systems Analysis Concept Directorate program to analyze the application tensegrity structures to NASA missions.  I can’t believe I get to say those words. Tensegrity structures are structures made of only rigid bars and tension cables. They are extremely stable and adaptive structures that promise lightweight, cheap, and elegant solutions to many engineering problems.

One thing I love about the NASA centers is the wide ranging background everyone has. Everyone here has their own unique quirk or story. I was asked to share something different about myself and was thrilled to add to the diverse story of NASA.

The one quirk I have that I have never met anyone else with involves grades. I do not know what my GPA is. My first year of college, a lot of stress and unhealthy habits occurred when I religiously began checking every grade, every score, every point. I realized that it was not a feasible way to go through life. I had to do something. My solution was simply to never look. If I got a test back, I would turn it over and recycle it immediately. I knew, everyone knows, during a test what they know and what they don’t know. I didn’t need a number to tell me that. Better than that, I found that it freed me of this concept of ‘knowing everything.’ It also freed me from searching for this classic Hollywood movie moment. There are 5 minutes left on the clock, my hands are sweaty, but just in the nick of time I get this epiphany and figure out the really hard problem. Epiphanies happen randomly and without warning: They are not great to depend on, and you can’t train for them. Real problem solving, real engineering is all about incremental small achievements. NASA has shown me that and it is so inspiring for me. The real achievements are plagued with a much slower story than we want to believe.

Another reason I stopped looking at grades was this lose-lose scenario that always played out because of them. I always hated the fact that if I got a bad grade I would shut down and convince myself I would never know the material, there was no hope, give up now. If I got a really good grade I would convince myself I knew it all, I was the best, and then for the next test I would perform poorly because I thought I didn’t need to study as much. It was a lose-lose game. There was no benefit even if I did get a good grade.

I’ve come to realize, I never want to think I’m a master of anything, especially in science. It is much better to always believe there is so much more to know.  If it wasn’t for this quirk I would not be here today. I survived college because I let go of the grades. It let me understand things on a much deeper level. I was learning from pure passion, enthusiasm, and curiosity. I wasn’t doing it all for grades or social ranking. I wasn’t making some algorithm of necessary points to get an A in my head. I was doing it for me and it paid off. One last thing: If you’re wondering how I still don’t know my GPA after applying for these internships (a required input for the application), I have a friend sworn to secrecy to put that number in for me.