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

Sarah Vita: An Uncharted Course to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

Starting a new career at age 29 may be daunting for some, but Sarah Vita followed her passion… and it led her to NASA.

My journey to Marshall Space Flight Center was a circuitous one. I like to think of myself as an atypical intern… in the best way possible. I graduated from the University of Southern California in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature, and two minors in French and Neuroscience. The look on people’s faces here when I tell them that is about what you’d expect. So how did I get here? It wasn’t luck, I’ll tell you that. I had to work really hard and, at 29-years old, have made some sacrifices that put me at a different ‘sign-post’ in life than most of my friends who maybe already own homes, finished medical school, or are thinking about having children. But that’s OK. My life has been a wonderful adventure. And now I’m here, working for NASA!

I have always been extremely fascinated by space exploration and astronomical science, but never really thought I could make it my career. After a string of jobs post-graduation that left me unfulfilled, I went to live in northern Thailand for a year to travel and volunteer at an elephant sanctuary. It was the definition of wanderlust and I loved every minute of it. When I came back to the United States, I began taking pre-requisite courses for veterinary school which included math and physics. After a couple of semesters of STEM classes I realized, hey, I’m pretty good at this, and I really enjoy it. My dream of working for NASA began to seem more like a feasible reality.

I was taking my engineering pre-requisites at Santa Monica College, a community college in Southern California a mere two miles from the beach. I joined the Physics Club and scoured the NASA website for internship and job opportunities. I found out about the National Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program, an educational outreach program geared specifically towards community college STEM students and quickly applied to the JPL branch. The NCAS program is really where everything started to fall into place for me. NCAS provides an authentic NASA experience to community college STEM students and encourages them to apply to graduate programs or transfer to 4-year universities. I’ve honestly never felt so inspired in my life than during my week at NCAS JPL. One of the biggest things I learned from NCAS was that anything is possible, and no dream is too big. NCAS is a very unique experience in that it allows students to get real hands on engineering experience much like a traditional internship program, but because it’s catered specifically for community college students who don’t have degrees yet, a large part of the program is focused on how to take those next steps to get into a full-time program. We were introduced to NCAS graduates who were now studying at top universities, attended inspiring talks from JPL employees, toured the campus (JPL has a Mars yard!), and were given resources that extended beyond the program’s end date. It is definitely because of NCAS that I am here today, interning at Marshall. Eddie Gonzalez and Roslyn Soto run NCAS JPL and are truly two of the most hardworking, passionate, and motivating people at NASA. I owe much of my success in getting here to them as they are constantly inspiring students and make themselves available for questions and assistance when applying to other NASA internships or schools. They made me realize that my dream of working for NASA was attainable and helped me do it.

A few more semesters of classes later, and after a stint as a full-time technical consultant, I went to see astronaut Jose Hernandez speak at Generation 1st Degree Pico Rivera, a community program with a mission to provide resources to minorities to get college degrees. Along with Jose’s inspiring and moving story, I was able to meet other NASA engineers who had varying backgrounds, overcame struggles, and ultimately made it to NASA. At 29, the thought of starting over in school, especially in something as rigorous as engineering, is often overwhelming. But every time I hear one of these NASA icons, like Jose, tell their story, a fire is ignited in me and I am reminded that it is possible and so worth it. I went home that day and applied for every NASA internship I qualified for. I didn’t hear back for months and just assumed it wasn’t going to happen this year. What now? Do I continue my coursework, apply for a second bachelor’s degree program or a master’s program? Do something else? And then the email came. On August 14, a cool two weeks before the fall internship session began, I received an email from Marshall Space Flight Center, inviting me to intern with NASA this semester. It was a cosmic sign.

So I packed my bags and traveled all the way from Los Angeles to Huntsville to start my journey. And that about brings us up to speed. I am currently interning with the Space Environments team within the Spacecraft and Vehicle Systems Department at Marshall Space Flight Center. I analyze the space environment (with a focus on plasma) and how it impacts space systems like the International Space Station and the astronauts on it! My team is absolutely amazing and I am learning new things every day. The internship program here really allows us to get the full Marshall experience with site tours so we can see all of the other cool things that go on at Marshall, weekly talks with engineers, and weekend barbecues! I can’t wait to see what the universe has in store for me next!