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.

Welcome to the NASA Intern Blog!

Hardworking. Inspiring. Dedicated.

These are among the words we use to describe our NASA interns. However, they are each unique students with different backgrounds, paths and goals. That’s why we’re giving them the opportunity to tell their story.

Welcome to the NASA intern blog, where students across the agency from all backgrounds, disciplines and education levels share pieces of their NASA journey. Each post helps paint a picture of the diverse and talented group that is furthering NASA’s mission. You could be among them.

But that’s enough information from us. We’ll pass the microphone to our interns and let them tell their own stories in their own words. Enjoy!

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