Supreet Kaur: From NCAS Student to NASA Intern (and more!) at NASA’s Ames Research Center

I am not a traditional high school to college student. My family and I came to this country as refugees. As immigrants we focused more on the day-to-day survival, so a higher education was never in the works for me, nor was it ever encouraged. The predetermined plan was that I would graduate high school and follow the traditional path of an arranged marriage.

I am the first woman in my family to choose an education and a career in STEM over what was expected of me. Deciding who I wanted to be was the easy part, the execution and risk it involved was another story. My education and independence had a very rocky beginning; I didn’t have any support or the faintest idea of what direction to go in. So I spent several years taking classes at a local community college to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. I explored various subjects; microbiology, anatomy, women in art history, political science, etc., learned what the path to higher education looks like, and built the self-confidence I needed to thrive on my own. During that journey I met many people who became my allies, mentors, and support system. They encouraged me to dream big, and so I applied to the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholar (NCAS) program. And that is how I first came to NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC).

As part of NASA’s Women’s History Month – Past, Present, and Future feature, Supreet Kaur is highlighted as part of NASA’s commitment to STEM education and career awareness.

I first came to NASA ARC as a NASA Community College Aerospace Scholar. It was a very concentrated experience – the tours, lectures from esteemed researchers, the rover competition – I’d never experienced anything like that before. And I was hooked! I knew from that experience I wanted to return. I wanted to be a part of the NASA culture, and to be around some of the most brilliant individuals who are working passionately towards something they believe in.

When I came to NASA ARC as a Systems Engineer summer intern, for the Airspace Technology Demonstration 2 (ATD-2) project, I had no prior knowledge of Air Traffic Management (ATM). So you can imagine my surprise when in the first week of my internship I had the opportunity to participate as a pseudo ramp controller in a Human-in-the-loop (HITL) simulation alongside professional pilots and air traffic controllers to test scenarios using the Integrated Arrival, Departure, and Surface (IADS) software. I was diving into the deep end of the pool without any floaties. Although I was nervous, every single person in that simulation had so much faith that I would get the hang of it, I began to believe it too. With every passing day my education kicked in and I felt my self-confidence rise. By the end of the simulation I not only understood the role NASA plays in the ATD-2 project, but it allowed me to the visualize the problem we are trying to solve.

Supreet Kaur is currently a Spring 2019 Systems Engineer intern, for the Airspace Technology Demonstration 2 (ATD-2) project at NASA ARC.

An important lesson I’ve learned from my mentor, Andrew Ging, is how to stay calm and be agile in the midst of the unknown. Unforeseen things can happen in experimental settings; systems crash or behave unexpectedly, sometimes plan A and B are no longer feasible, or we find ourselves in uncharted territory. I’ve learned to approach problems with a holistic approach by designing strategic and tactical plans. Thus, I’ve learned to better prioritize which problem needs to be addressed first, determine if the problem needs a short term or a long term solution, think about the outcome of the solutions I implement. When you dissect a problem through abstract thinking, and start defining all the unknowns, the problem itself becomes less intimidating making it easier to stay calm.

Professionally, this internship has sharpened my systems thinking skills. I know I can walk into any situation, find the problem, and propose several solutions to resolve that problem. I am no longer intimidated by the things I do not know, instead I’ve learned to use my inexperience as an asset – sometimes a problem needs an outside perspective, without preconceived ideas. Personally, being a NASA intern and returning as a NCAS Mentor has given me insight about what I want out of a career. I now understand the value of work-life balance and being part of a broader community.

Through outreach I am able to connect and relate to community college students who are finding their own path in the STEM industry. This internship allows me to give back to the community which has fostered my personal and professional growth.

Supreet Kaur will end her internship at NASA ARC this Spring 2019 but will join the Brooke Owens Fellowship for Summer 2019.

About the Author
Supreet Kaur is a current student at San Jose State University, earning a Bachelor of Science in Industrial & Systems Engineering. Supreet recently became one of the recipients for the Brooke Owens Fellowship Class of 2019. The fellowship is designed to connect women in aerospace with a purpose driven summer internship, a leadership summit, and mentorship with pioneers in the industry. This summer, she will be working at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) as a research intern in the Aerospace Security Project.

To learn more about NASA Internships, please visit intern.nasa.gov. Start your journey today! #NASAinterns

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.