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!

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.