Amanda Davidek: Engineering Inspiration at NASA’s Langley Research Center

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had very little understanding of what engineering was. I think I held a fairly stereotypical viewpoint of it: it was something that men did and it involved a lot of math. And what it precisely was that they did, I couldn’t say. It was not something I had considered at all up to that point when I considered potential future careers or what I wanted to study in college. It felt like every day I was bouncing from one idea to the next: doctor, architect, marine biologist. Then one day late in the year, my mom told me that she had signed me up for an event called Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day at Purdue University. I went in with no way of knowing the impact it would have on my future path.

Over the course of the day, my eyes were opened to the seemingly endless possibilities of engineering majors and applications of an engineering degree. I also met groups of intelligent and friendly women who were studying engineering and I listened to their stories about how they made that decision. For the first time, I had some association between myself and the engineering field. I could relate to these women and I started to picture myself in their shoes. I began to fall in love with the idea. I had always enjoyed learning about calculus, chemistry, and biology, but I didn’t realize that I could apply these topics in so many different ways. I also didn’t realize engineering was as much about creativity and innovation as it was about hard science and math. I remember leaving the event and spending the whole two hour car ride home telling my parents about what I had learned. I then spent the next several months googling everything I could about different engineering fields. I ultimately landed on biomedical engineering, as it gave me a chance to explore the medical field in a way I hadn’t previously considered. I honestly haven’t looked back since then; I’m now entering my senior year at Florida Institute of Technology and the program has been a great fit for me and my interests. I’ve also really enjoyed learning about all the different applications of biomedical engineering in human spaceflight. That was one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far: you don’t have to sacrifice one passion for another. My love and interest in space could benefit my degree in biomedical engineering, even if the path wasn’t clear cut. This summer, I’m working at NASA Langley on the Exploration Medical Capability project, enhancing a database of medical supplies, devices, and pharmaceuticals for potential use in long-term human spaceflight missions. There is something incredibly rewarding about finally applying classroom knowledge on real world projects that could have great impact in the future.

I’m so thankful that I had learned about engineering when I did. It’s crazy to look back and see that I didn’t even know the field existed until halfway through high school! I most likely wouldn’t be where I am today if not for that one day many years ago. Now, I volunteer at my local Society of Women Engineers’ Introducing Girls to Engineering events and at local elementary schools in the hopes of impacting those girls in the same way I was. I love witnessing the curiosity and wonder that the girls all seem to share when they see videos of massive rockets taking off or hear stories about projects that the volunteers have worked on. I can’t wait to share what I’ve worked on this summer as a NASA intern at future events. Ultimately, I want to continue to help girls see that the world of STEM is much more expansive than they may think, and that it is open to anyone with passion and curiosity.

Apply for NASA Internships by creating a profile 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.

Tanya Gupta: Glider Goals at Armstrong Flight Research Center

Tanya is gliding through her internship at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center while working on just that — a glider, intended to fly across Mars!

Hi there! My name is Tanya Gupta and I am a senior studying Mechanical Engineering at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. This spring, I am serving as the Ops Lead on the PRANDTL-M (Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars) aircraft at Armstrong Flight Research Center.

The mission of the PRANDTL-M is to implement Ludwig Prandtl’s 1933 bird based wing design on an aircraft that is intended to perform the first ever Martian flight. To give some perspective, the Curiosity mission to Mars jettisoned the rover with a 140-pound tungsten weight from its back shell in order to balance the asymmetrical weight of the device. PRANDTL-M hopes to replace this dead weight on future Mars missions with something more useful, like a glider that will acquire data of Martian atmosphere and potentially perform spatial mapping of the surface.

Tanya Gupta and her mother at Space Center Houston in 2005
A young Tanya Gupta and her mother smile at Space Center Houston in 2005, just the beginning of Tanya’s exciting future with NASA.

From the moment I got to Armstrong, I felt incredibly welcomed and treated with respect. My project mentor and coworkers have made me feel more than qualified and helped me build confidence in my abilities as an engineer. My opinion here is valued just as much as everyone else’s, which I believe to be a rare quality to find in an internship, especially one operating at such a high level. In addition to that, I believe in the value of encouraging women to pursue STEM, recognizing that reinforcement breeds excellence – and I am grateful that NASA shares this sentiment.

One of my many mentors is Al Bowers, who is the expert on Prandtl’s alternative wing theory. Al is the Chief Scientist of Armstrong, which you would imagine would make him incredibly intimidating. To the contrary, he’s made us interns feel right at home from the start. He’s also the coolest person I’ve ever met – which I decided one day when he casually told me about the time he hung out with Buzz Aldrin. If there is anything I would like to take away from my experience with Al, it’s that I hope to be half as dedicated, half as intelligent, and half as passionate about my career as him when I’m his age. And perhaps one day I will – after all, he began his journey at NASA as an intern, too.

Tanya and a Global Hawk airplane
On a tour, Tanya was fortunate to snap a photo in front of her favorite plane, the Global Hawk.

Personally, my ideal career path is to work in the field of virtual and augmented reality. Before coming here, I didn’t know how this internship would necessarily help me in my goal, but I’ve learned that aerospace is in fact a leading industry for this technology. Armstrong also has an amazing set of flight simulators that I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter firsthand – I even got to do a couple of barrel rolls on an F-15! Since PRANDTL-M is a Unmanned Aircraft Systems project, I’ve learned about the potential benefits of VR components on unmanned missions. Imagine a totally unmanned spacecraft, millions of miles into space, controlled virtually. We might soon find that fact is, truly, stranger than science fiction. I can’t wait to see what NASA does with this emerging technology.

I’ll end with the coolest thing about my internship: the sonic booms. We hear them every day in our office and rate them based on how much our building shakes. If the mug on my desk falls over, it’s a 10. 🙂