Hello world, my name is Dayana Contreras and I’m an AFRC intern. I started my first internship in the fall 2019. I was very surprised when I got the offer, I couldn’t believe it; I didn’t even drop my fall classes until the day after orientation. I kept thinking I would get to the gate and they were going to tell me it was all a big mistake. My dream of working for NASA had finally come true. Having the privilege to be able to come in the center and see the amazing things they did was a reward itself. I felt so small walking past all the aircraft, SOFIA is one of the most amazing airplanes I have ever witnessed.
My first project was Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Lower Drag (PRADTL-3c). I helped with the mass property testing, such as center of gravity and moment of inertia. I was also in charge of data collection and analysis using the mathematical models I created. I got the opportunity to do a lot of hands on testing. This was a great internship, and I got to bond with my teammates as well as my mentor, Oscar Murillo. I felt I got to know many people around the center and got to learn the dynamics as well. This center has a great small-town feel – everyone smiles and says hi to you and they are so willing to help and want to see you succeed, it is so welcoming.
My second internship was in the spring 2020. My project was working with National Aeronautics and Space Administration Design and Analysis of Rotorcraft (NDARC). Being the first intern assigned to this project gave me an insight on what this center is about – research. I learned to be patient and to work alone. It really gave the phrase slowly but surely a true meaning. I was very lucky to have had a great mentor, Jason Lechniak, by my side helping me get through the issues I encountered. I learned so much from him I am very grateful for the opportunity and trust he placed in me.
My advice for future interns is to stay focused but have fun at the same time. Enjoy the internship and everything the center has to offer. Take classes, go to meetings and lunch and learn sessions. Attend talks and events. Get to know people; a smile can lead to a conversation. This center has so many things to offer and this is the opportunity of a lifetime, make the best of it! Remember you are not expected to know everything, but you are expected to do your best to try to figure out a solution to your problem.
By Vanessa Rincon International Education Week 2019 Edition
As a kid growing up in the small town of Muskogee, Okla., I believed there were only two career options at NASA: be an astronaut or a rocket scientist. Neither of which an Okie from Muskogee would fit that mold, so I thought. But I was mistaken. Because here I am, a NASA intern and soon to be a full time employee.
NASA has allowed me to have fantastic mentors, support the future Artemis – to the moon — mission, and given me the opportunity to network with peers from all walks of life. Most importantly, NASA has given me the privilege to engage the community and inspire minority youth about STEM. I truly felt as if I was living the dream.
I am a recent graduate of Langston University, a Historically Black College in Oklahoma with bachelors in accounting and an associate’s in financial planning. Because of Langston University’s partnership with NASA, I made history in 2017 being the first student from Langston School of Business to receive an internship from NASA. During my tenure at Johnson Space Center in Houston, I have been able to complete five internship tours and work on a multitude of different projects. My projects have included everything from working with procurement (buying stuff) to now public engagement (taking the message to the community).
During my first internship, I worked in JSC’s Gilruth fitness center as a business management intern. For my second, I worked in the Chief Information Office (CIO) as the first ever business integrator helping support the CIO and Chief Financial Office. On my third, I worked in the Office of STEM Engagement working with the Houston Independent School District (HISD) working with underrepresented students and cultivating a stronger relationship between NASA and HISD. For my fourth, I had the honor to help coordinate special events for the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo lunar landing. I got to engage with millions of people from all over the world as I helped with our special events, promotions and, also, JSC internal celebrations. I was able to network with every organization and many public figures such as NASA legend Apollo 11 flight director Gene Kranz, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee and many others.
Presently, I’m an External Relations Office (ERO) intern, still in the office of STEM Engagement, continuing working with HISD to maintain and sustain the partnership our team built. The partnership focuses on innovative educational methods and uses best practices that promote the advancement of knowledge and skills toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers, with a goal to help HISD increase the academic achievement rates in STEM. Our hope is to increase industry, university, and community partnerships which will support and enhance the aerospace themes in HISD.
I never imagined myself working in a STEM career field, but I understand the importance and need for STEM engagement, especially with students in underserved communities. I am a firm believer that what happens outside the gates of NASA reflects what goes on inside NASA. By engaging with the public, we can show people all the amazing things we have accomplished at NASA and will continue to do now and in the future — like returning to the Moon in 2024.
My mission at HISD was to show students, especially students of color, that it’s possible to work at NASA and aerospace industries by offering them experiences and opportunities. One of the challenges I faced was finding different ways to relate STEM that would resonate with the students in terms they could understand. I met this challenge through multiple STEM days, including a virtual reality show of the International Space Station and by including other NASA interns, subject matter experts, and former astronauts.
Even though I’m not a rocket scientist or an astronaut, NASA has allowed an Okie from Muskogee to engage, connect, and inspire youth and to gain aerospace experience by helping students find passion in STEM. I want future generations to know no matter what your background you have the ability to do amazing work for one of the most exciting organizations…NASA.
For me “living the dream” is not working at NASA, but helping improve the world one student at a time.
Are you interested in STEM engagement? Consider applying to a NASA internship! You can find Summer 2020 intern projects at intern.nasa.gov. The Summer 2020 application deadline is March 8, 2020. Start your intern journey today! #NASAinterns
By Vanessa Rincon International Education Week 2019 Edition
I have made many memories throughout my time as an intern at NASA, and these will stick with me forever. These have mainly come through the new friendships that I have developed here at NASA Ames. My mentor is truly my biggest inspiration at NASA. His adherence to continue working through difficulties is a brilliant quality, and although he is often inundated in work, he never even considered not helping me in any moment I had a question or required his assistance with something. This has inspired me to be accommodating to others and under no circumstances should I not have time to aid others in need.
Aspiring to become a professional Australian football player, I dedicated my life to performing the sport at the highest level I possibly could in Perth, Australia. I suffered an injury in 2016 whilst playing that fractured my skull and brought me a serious concussion, changing the way I thought about how I wanted to live my life. At this point, I enrolled in a Masters of Professional Aerospace Engineering in Sydney, Australia, and left my family and athletic aspirations.
Currently, my role on my project is to conduct an analysis on the performance of a newly developed high-speed CMOS camera sensor purposed for Pressure-Sensitive Paint applications, otherwise known as an optical wind tunnel technique through which an image is captured and can be processed to harness the pressure distribution over the entire surface of the aircraft or spacecraft model captured by the frame. I test this camera in pressure calibration cells to identify its light-capturing capabilities at different partial pressures of oxygen. I also am involved in a wind tunnel test on the Common Research Model and structural tests on the Germanium windows in the Unitary wind tunnel that are used for infrared wave transfer.
This internship has truly changed my life, and it has taught me that there is no impossible. It showed me that if you dedicate yourself to something, you can achieve the world, and that nothing is out of reach. Always believe in yourself and the others around you, and the rest will fall into place. The urge of wanting to know how things worked led me to become an engineer, which is something that I did not see myself as doing throughout the majority of my life while I was focused on athletic aspirations, but I find no regret whatsoever in what I have chosen to do, and am incredibly enthusiastic to see what the future holds for myself with NASA. My advice to future interns is to Embrace the opportunity and work diligently. The privilege of working with experts at NASA is one that should not be taken for granted. Talk to everyone, ask questions and ultimately immerse yourself in the NASA family. The internship program will be one of the most rewarding experiences of a lifetime so enjoy the journey and I hope you gain as much from it as I did.
My experience at NASA has truly been unique, shaping me into who I am and teaching me a variety of different things on a daily basis. Right now, I don’t really have a single project, as I’m helping with many of them. I currently work as a Spanish journalism, multimedia, and social media intern, helping with the Spanish science communications at NASA. This doesn’t just have to do with the translations of the different missions, but also the Live Shots programs and other projects that involve the Hispanic community.
This was not always easy for me. One of the biggest challenges throughout my three internships here at Goddard was being able to communicate in English, coming from a place where my first language was Spanish. Coming to Goddard, everything around me was in English, and it was my first time working in a place in which everything was in a completely different language. However, I was able to create content in Spanish, even though my relationships, communications, and interactions with other coworkers are completely based upon my knowledge of the English language. This was truly a goal for me, and it started out as a challenge, but I ended up working hard because of how I wanted to be able to communicate effectively in both languages.
I began here by participating in the summer poster session, which is a project that is meant to expand NASA’s science communications in Spanish. This project was based upon research that my co-mentor, Maria-Jose, worked on in 2011, and throughout the summer of 2018, we worked on finding funding for this project. We were able to start a proposal that created a pilot project that helped centralize the NASA Spanish communications, and were able to focus on a business structure that was feasible enough to where we could find the money needed to fund it. At this point, my mentor and co-mentor worked closely with me, allowing for me to win the Star Award in the Functional Services Division here at Goddard, then allowing for the project to be approved in April of 2019. All of this eventually led up to me taking my fall internship, and I have continued to put effort into my projects to truly make things come true for me.
One of the greatest things that I continue to learn from my mentor and co-mentor, as well as subject matter experts, is how communications are consistently evolving and being reinvented. These are people who are always open to help me and push for me to improve, and they show me that it is worth it to be perseverant on what I want to accomplish and obtain.
Visiting a NASA center for the first time when I was 11 years old, I felt that I would never be able to find a place here because of how my interests were not aligned neither with science nor with engineering. I quickly discovered in college that this was wrong, and that the company did match my professional interests, pushing for me to apply for my internship. Eventually, I was contacted about an opportunity in which the agency was seeking someone who spoke Spanish, and from that point onwards, I have worked to where I am currently in my third internship with NASA, hoping to someday work for NASA professionally. My advice to future interns is: Believe in yourself and try new experiences! Sometimes you are going to feel desperate because you don’t know where you fit. But these experiences help you discover what things you like the most and where you see yourself in the future.
Are you interested in STEM communication? Consider applying to a NASA internship! You can find Summer 2020 intern projects at intern.nasa.gov. The Summer 2020 application deadline is March 8, 2020. Start your intern journey today! #NASAinterns #NationalSTEMDay
Do you have any fun or special NASA or STEM memories that have contributed to your journey here? The University of Michigan wrote a short-story article titled “The farm-raised engineer” that described my journey from a small-town family farm to the PhD program at the University of Michigan. Joseph Xu, Senior Multimedia Producer, interviewed me in the lab, at my apartment, at the research greenhouse, and traveled with me to my family farm in order to capture my family history as farmers and how my education has led me to perform research that has come full-circle with trying to provide innovative solutions to modern agriculture. I was also a 2018 National Geographic Chasing Genius Finalist (1 of 15 in nearly 3,000). http://archive.natgeochasinggenius.com/video/1497. Unfortunately, I did not win the competition. While I did not win the competition from the National Geographic Chasing Genius, I learned to not be deterred or give up after a loss. Bringing the ideas with me as I have the opportunity and resources available here at Kennedy Space Center to further pursue the project.
What challenges or hardships do you feel you have had to overcome to reach this point? Coming from a small and rural community I did not have the high school educational opportunities provided to most of my peers at the University of Michigan. My freshman year was spent trying to study, competing with my peers and adjusting to being “far” (6 ½ hour drive) from home. In order to help pay for my schooling, at the start of my sophomore year I began working on the weekends as a handyman around the city of Ann Arbor to help offset rent costs, groceries, and other school supplies.
The plant research project mentioned in the National Geographic video was actually a side project of mine that I started in my second year of graduate studies. It was what I had intended on developing for my thesis but it never did received the funding. Therefore my thesis work was on a different project and my spare time was spent on pursuing this research. I would work during the day on my thesis research and then in the evenings, a colleague who was also interested in the project would work with me as we further developed the project. This led to a lot of evenings during the week and weekends spent doing research together with some time-stamped photographs at midnight. Since there was no available funding, my father had given me soybeans from the farm (Engeling Farms) and I had spent my own money on supplies for germination and growth tests with my advisor allowing me to use the non-consumable lab equipment.
Are there any educators who inspired you throughout school or contributed to your pursuit of a NASA internship? My advisor, Professor John Foster, had worked at NASA – Glenn Research Center before becoming a Professor at the University of Michigan. His excitement with research and teaching and love of the advancement of knowledge throughout NASA had inspired me to look into the opportunities available to me and to see if I would be able to contribute to any of the on-going work.
I am very thankful to have received the opportunity to work with my current mentor, Annie Meier, PhD, and the OSCAR Team in the Applied Chemistry Lab here at Kennedy Space Center. Dr. Meter and her team focuses on a waste gasification process involving a rig that has been named Orbital Syngas/Commodity Augmentation Reactor or OSCAR for short. My current role in the group is to demonstrate the use of an alternative technology for the same purpose and therefore I am working with a low-temperature plasma torch for waste gasification. This correlates directly with my graduate degree focus within the field of plasma physics. I am also collaborating with GIoia Massa, PhD, of the VEGGIE group for the sterilization of seeds via various plasma technologies.
I was excited for the opportunity and experience to work at NASA for the plasma gasification group as well as a possible collaboration to continue working on the seed project for potential applications and use for the International Space Station. One of the most interesting things about my internship is that I have the ability to work at a historic facility as well as seeing its transition into a multi-user spaceport by experiencing launches first-hand. Learning how to use new equipment and analyze the data will be invaluable in years to come for my career. Also, learning the requirements for flight technologies as well as the advanced chemistry and concepts applied has been fascinating.
How do you feel this internship has helped you develop more professional or personal confidence? While interning here, I am writing my PhD thesis so my goal is to graduate. Then I wish to pursue plasma applications for environmental remediation and applications in agriculture. My mentor’s group as well as another group I am working with, has provided me with the one of the best foundations for learning basic and advanced concepts and knowledge in order to further pursue advanced applications for plasma technologies.
The internship has helped in a professional way by allowing me to interact with experts in fields different than mine. It has also helped me be able to clearly explain the experiences I have gained in my graduate studies and how I may be able to assist in their projects. My name is Kenneth Engeling and this is my story.
About the Author Kenneth Engeling is finishing up his 4th year of his PhD studies in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences with a focus in low temperature plasmas. He comes from a small town farming community in which the farm has been in his family for 4 generations spanning nearly 140 years. Kenneth has traveled from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which is home to the Wolverines and fantastic food options, and has succeeded in skipping the Michigan winter. Kenneth will be continuing his internship until the end of Summer 2019 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
To learn more about NASA Internships, please visit intern.nasa.gov. Start your journey today! #NASAinterns
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).
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.
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.
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
“Age is but a number” is a phrase familiar to NASA Kennedy intern Madison Melton. Pursuing NASA opportunities in high school led her to receive a fall 2017 internship at the age of 18.
Growing up, I watched the movie Apollo 13 and experienced the adrenaline of “go for launch.” I was captivated by the enormous power and massiveness of rockets, awed by the roar and thrill of blast off, and intrigued by the vastness of space. For me, this is what my dreams were made of.
Now, I’m a NASA intern and living my dream. Although it was hard getting here, the journey was a labor of love. Along the way, I’ve had much help from my mentor, Scott Pleasants, and my parents, LB and Frieda Melton. These people taught me that no one is ever too young to pursue his or her dreams, and encouraged me to pursue my own. Scott, along with my parents, taught me to trust in the doors that God opens, and soon after that my dream of working at NASA became a reality.
During my junior year of high school at the age of 15, I participated in a class held by NASA called Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars (VASTS). This experience ignited my passion for aerospace and validated my direction and that my dreams are attainable. Graduating as a top VASTS scholar, I was offered the opportunity to go to NASA Langley Summer Academy for a week to develop a mission to Mars. Here, I was with other like-minded students and professionals, pushed myself in new areas, and submerged myself in my dream. Leaving Langley, I was even more determined and focused on becoming an engineer and earning a chance to work at NASA.
After completing several other engineering internships, my chance at NASA came. During the spring semester of my first year of college, my current mentor at NASA, Carlos Alvarado, called to interview me for an internship for fall 2017. I can’t begin to say how honored I am to have been chosen as an intern for NASA. From orientation to tours to seeing rockets being built in the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) and Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), I feel like I am a part of something bigger than myself, and that really drives me to work as hard as I can. Just knowing that I can contribute and help advance humankind by ultimately working towards sending a spacecraft to Mars motivates me to diligently work and excel with the material entrusted to me.
For my internship, I am working with the Launch Services Program (LSP) in the Avionics branch. I evaluate vehicle data from commercial launch providers (i.e. ULA, Space X, and Orbital Sciences) and model that information on IRIS and Winplot scripts/pages. The IRIS system and Winplot telemetry monitoring system are in-house developed applications and serve as the primary tools within LSP for real-time vehicle monitoring during launch vehicle operations, launch day countdowns, and data review. The development of IRIS screens and Winplot scripts is intended to capture recent avionics modifications implemented on current launch providers systems. I support a crew of senior engineers to develop an understanding of launch vehicle system/sub-systems, launch vehicle telemetry, data collection, problem solving, and programming. Also, I monitor launch countdowns, test operations for the rockets, and assess anomalies and issues.
Working with such immense talents and bright minds is inspiring and humbling as well. At eighteen years old, I am the youngest intern in our group for this semester and the youngest in the Launch Services Program Avionics department. I am honored to be here and ready to give NASA my best. Every day, I go to work with a smile on my face, because I think I have the best job in the world.
Kelly DeRees knew she wanted a STEM career from the moment she laid eyes on Space Shuttle Endeavor, so she pursued several NASA experiences — and created STEM opportunities of her own — to make it happen.
When you’re standing nose-to-nose with a space shuttle, it’s hard to not want to be part of the team that made it fly.
This is how I felt as a freshman in high school, when I walked beneath Space Shuttle Endeavour at Kennedy Space Center before she flew to California to be in a museum. Now I’m a junior in college, and I’m an intern at Johnson Space Center in Houston. It’s been a long journey to get here, and I’ve been fortunate to have many NASA experiences along the way, all of which have taught me something that helped me get to JSC.
In high school, I joined several NASA education programs, including engineering design challenges, job shadows, and a student community that received mentorship from NASA employees. Many of the programs I was part of have since been phased out or replaced, but the lessons I learned from them have stuck with me. If you’re a student interested in being part of the space program, I recommend checking out current NASA student opportunities. If you’re in high school, the Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge program, or OPSPARC, is a great opportunity to exercise your engineering and communication skills while interacting with NASA scientists and engineers. If you’re in college, the Micro-g NExT program will allow you to design and build a tool for astronauts to use during a spacewalk, with the opportunity to test your device in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at JSC.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from NASA is persistence in the face of challenges. I’ve had plenty of chances to stumble on my way to where I am now. Through my NASA experiences, I learned that there is an opportunity within every obstacle. Sometimes I’ve tripped and fallen due to factors beyond my control, and sometimes the obstacles were my own fault. Regardless, learning to find an opportunity within every one of these challenges has built my confidence and problem solving skills. When one of the education programs I was part of in high school was discontinued, I channeled my disappointment into creating opportunities where none existed before. I mentored a middle school girls’ STEM club, scheduled my own job shadows with scientists from NASA and the Smithsonian Institution, and started a club for space advocacy in my hometown. It was hard, but it was a valuable lesson to learn and I now apply the same philosophy at JSC and in my personal life. When something doesn’t go my way, I don’t see it as a barrier to success – it’s an opportunity for me to learn or try something new.
In addition to the technical skills I’ve learned with NASA, I also learned the importance of networking. I started building my NASA network in high school, and expanded my network during my first internship at NASA Goddard. My networking at Goddard led directly to an internship in Huntsville, AL with a private company in summer 2017. I also had the opportunity to meet with a U.S. Senator and Goddard leadership because of the network that I built. Learning how to use my connections has played a big a role in getting me to JSC.
My journey to become a NASA engineer, and ultimately an astronaut, is only beginning, but I am grateful for the NASA experiences I have had so far. I’m not sure what my life would have looked like without them, but I’m fairly confident I wouldn’t be at JSC right now had I not had those experiences. For anyone who stands where I stood six years ago, dreaming of space but not knowing how to get there, keep learning, keep trying, and keep pushing forward. Many doors won’t open on the first try, but the victories are well worth the effort.
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.
Starting a new career at age 29 may be daunting for some, but Sarah Vita followed her passion… and it led her to NASA.
My journey to Marshall Space Flight Center was a circuitous one. I like to think of myself as an atypical intern… in the best way possible. I graduated from the University of Southern California in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature, and two minors in French and Neuroscience. The look on people’s faces here when I tell them that is about what you’d expect. So how did I get here? It wasn’t luck, I’ll tell you that. I had to work really hard and, at 29-years old, have made some sacrifices that put me at a different ‘sign-post’ in life than most of my friends who maybe already own homes, finished medical school, or are thinking about having children. But that’s OK. My life has been a wonderful adventure. And now I’m here, working for NASA!
I have always been extremely fascinated by space exploration and astronomical science, but never really thought I could make it my career. After a string of jobs post-graduation that left me unfulfilled, I went to live in northern Thailand for a year to travel and volunteer at an elephant sanctuary. It was the definition of wanderlust and I loved every minute of it. When I came back to the United States, I began taking pre-requisite courses for veterinary school which included math and physics. After a couple of semesters of STEM classes I realized, hey, I’m pretty good at this, and I really enjoy it. My dream of working for NASA began to seem more like a feasible reality.
I was taking my engineering pre-requisites at Santa Monica College, a community college in Southern California a mere two miles from the beach. I joined the Physics Club and scoured the NASA website for internship and job opportunities. I found out about the National Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program, an educational outreach program geared specifically towards community college STEM students and quickly applied to the JPL branch. The NCAS program is really where everything started to fall into place for me. NCAS provides an authentic NASA experience to community college STEM students and encourages them to apply to graduate programs or transfer to 4-year universities. I’ve honestly never felt so inspired in my life than during my week at NCAS JPL. One of the biggest things I learned from NCAS was that anything is possible, and no dream is too big. NCAS is a very unique experience in that it allows students to get real hands on engineering experience much like a traditional internship program, but because it’s catered specifically for community college students who don’t have degrees yet, a large part of the program is focused on how to take those next steps to get into a full-time program. We were introduced to NCAS graduates who were now studying at top universities, attended inspiring talks from JPL employees, toured the campus (JPL has a Mars yard!), and were given resources that extended beyond the program’s end date. It is definitely because of NCAS that I am here today, interning at Marshall. Eddie Gonzalez and Roslyn Soto run NCAS JPL and are truly two of the most hardworking, passionate, and motivating people at NASA. I owe much of my success in getting here to them as they are constantly inspiring students and make themselves available for questions and assistance when applying to other NASA internships or schools. They made me realize that my dream of working for NASA was attainable and helped me do it.
A few more semesters of classes later, and after a stint as a full-time technical consultant, I went to see astronaut Jose Hernandez speak at Generation 1st Degree Pico Rivera, a community program with a mission to provide resources to minorities to get college degrees. Along with Jose’s inspiring and moving story, I was able to meet other NASA engineers who had varying backgrounds, overcame struggles, and ultimately made it to NASA. At 29, the thought of starting over in school, especially in something as rigorous as engineering, is often overwhelming. But every time I hear one of these NASA icons, like Jose, tell their story, a fire is ignited in me and I am reminded that it is possible and so worth it. I went home that day and applied for every NASA internship I qualified for. I didn’t hear back for months and just assumed it wasn’t going to happen this year. What now? Do I continue my coursework, apply for a second bachelor’s degree program or a master’s program? Do something else? And then the email came. On August 14, a cool two weeks before the fall internship session began, I received an email from Marshall Space Flight Center, inviting me to intern with NASA this semester. It was a cosmic sign.
So I packed my bags and traveled all the way from Los Angeles to Huntsville to start my journey. And that about brings us up to speed. I am currently interning with the Space Environments team within the Spacecraft and Vehicle Systems Department at Marshall Space Flight Center. I analyze the space environment (with a focus on plasma) and how it impacts space systems like the International Space Station and the astronauts on it! My team is absolutely amazing and I am learning new things every day. The internship program here really allows us to get the full Marshall experience with site tours so we can see all of the other cool things that go on at Marshall, weekly talks with engineers, and weekend barbecues! I can’t wait to see what the universe has in store for me next!