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.