Sturgis Baxter: A Journey to Success at NASA Langley Research Center

Success … a word that is commonly thrown around from place to place. We see it on social media platforms, we read it in news publications, and we hear the word often from our parents and those whom we often look up to. But what is success? Is it living up to the status quo of your generation’s idea of perfection? I would dare to say no. Rather, let me tell you a story of a young man whose past could never have predicted his future. That young man is me.

Nearly three years ago, nobody would have guessed the young man living out of his Ford Explorer and showering at a local gym would ever go back to college, much less work for NASA. Yet, here I am. Up to that point in my life, I had made nearly every mistake a person could think of and then some. Working at a local warehouse, I was able to save up the three thousand dollars it was going to take in order to pay my way back into a local community college where I took up studies in their computer science program. Furthermore, I never imagined myself applying to a program like NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars, but I did. What came as even more of a surprise was that I got into the program, succeeded in the online course, and was offered an additional onsite experience at Stennis Space Center with other community college students from across the nation.

Sturgis Baxter (top row, center) and his NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) teammates at Stennis Space Center.

Statistical data would have likely shown something different for me than where I stand now. Taken from my parents at a young age, I grew up as an adopted child. The feeling of not being wanted and feeling like trash was not a foreign concept to me. I lived with that feeling for a long time before deciding to make a change and stand up for what I believed to be true: That I could change my stars if I only kept trying. So that’s exactly what I did. Despite my failures, I continued to try and never gave up on the idea that I could become a successful person. Today, I am reaping the benefit of believing I could become someone different.

My internship with Langley Research Center has taught me many lessons and principles which will certainly last me a lifetime. I am privileged daily to work and think alongside minds who view the world from a similar perspective. In the NASA culture, we think about things and we think about them from multiple perspectives. NASA truly employs the brightest and most creative minds that understand the beauty of diverse thinking. We work together to complete our mission, bring new ideas to those around us, and write the story for others to read when it comes to space exploration. I am without doubt continually humbled at the opportunity I’ve had in the past few months.

Sturgis Baxter (far left) and fellow NASA Langley interns celebrate completing their submission to the Spring 2018 NASA Intern agency-wide challenge.

My plan is to take back the project management and communication skills I’ve developed with NASA to help lead the way in producing valuable virtual reality research during my continued tenure as an undergraduate student. To change the world requires work, patience, and perseverance among other traits such as leadership and diplomacy. There is no doubt that working with NASA has helped make me a better person. I’m grateful to have had an opportunity to share my story and this tidbit of advice: Fight passionately, fight smart, and always pull up the people beside you.

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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.