Student Interns

Intern Stories | Elena Thomas

May 18, 2016
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My name is Elena Thomas and I am a chemistry major. I am currently finishing my last semester at Pasadena City College and will transfer to a four-year university this upcoming fall. I love the complexity of chemistry and understanding how and why reactions happen at a molecular level. I began college planning to major in biology, but the more I was exposed to chemistry, the more I fell in love with the subject. Last fall, I started my first internship at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) under the Student Independent Research Internship program in the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE). Now, I am interning with the Year Round Internship Program in the Planetary Sciences Division under supervision of Paul Johnson and Robert Hodyss. I am doing research under the NASA Astrobiology Institute, where we are investigating the potential habitability of Europa, the sixth moon of Jupiter, for life. This involves making and flash freezing different salt solutions and analyzing their spectra nearly every day I am at JPL. We perform these experiments using a Raman Spectrometer and a Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer. The salts that are present in the oceans of icy worlds can determine the habitability of places like Europa and Enceladus. I have really enjoyed my experience as an intern here at JPL. I have learned so much and am surrounded by people who want to help me learn and do well, both here at JPL and in my future endeavors.

Intern Stories | Kayo Kallas

May 18, 2016
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My name is Kayo Kallas. I major in Computer Science at Santa Monica College and plan to pursue a graduate degree in Computer Science. I am from Japan and have been living in the United States almost for twenty years. I started my internship in the NAI Icy Worlds Team under the Student Independent Research Internship (SIRI) program in Spring 2016. My mentor is Ivria Doloboff. One of my projects was to advance development and relaunch the Icy Worlds website, and the other is for a concept and logical design of a public access portal on the website for access to scientific data generated by Icy Worlds’ research. Working on these projects requires reading research publications, talking to my mentor, and attending various research and laboratory meetings. It is very fascinating to learn about each Icy Worlds research investigation, especially the work of Dr. Russell and Dr. Barge on the origin of life – how life arose from pre-biotic chemicals in early ocean environments within the early Earth or Icy Worlds.

Before studying Computer Science, I worked as an acoustic consultant for ten years, recommending room shapes and architectural materials to enhance acoustics in concert halls. I enjoyed working as an acoustic consultant, but realized I was more interested in working in a field more directly interacting with people’s lives.

In 2012, I hurt my back and became immobile for six months. At that time, my laptop computer with an internet connection was my only door to the outside world. I realized that computing technologies were tightly connected and inseparable from my life. My interest in computing technologies evolved through my personal experience with completing everyday tasks during my recovery such as online shopping and coordinating medical care. In fact, I was involved with my employer’s company website development while I was recovering, and I really enjoyed it. I took a couple of programming courses at Santa Monica College and eventually decided to change my career to the field of Computer Science.

I asked my professors’ advice about possible internship opportunities and they suggested I consider applying to JPL. It was serendipitous! When I was young, I was fascinated by astronomy and thrilled to watch the Space Shuttles’ launches. I enjoyed the broadcasts of Japanese astronauts’ interviews and their experiments in the shuttles from far away in Japan. However, as a young child, I never thought any of these industries would possibly be a part of my life. These were happing in the United States six thousand miles away. There is a space program in Japan, but their educational program was not extended to where I lived. Decades later, this opportunity arose! I thought this could be my only chance so I applied. I am so grateful that I was selected.

People in JPL are very open and friendly. I also felt very encouraged when I saw many women working at JPL. Everybody is welcoming and willing to spend their time teaching me. My mentor always tries to make my internship experience valuable through letting me attend meetings and delegating responsible tasks. While anticipating these activities, I encounter things that I never experienced outside of JPL. There are so many learning resources such as open-seminars and a JPL library. All of these experiences have helped widen my views about a future career path and areas of interest. My internship experience in JPL is definitely a precious moment in my life.

Intern Stories | Erika Flores

May 17, 2016
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My name is Erika Flores and I am 26 years old. I received my bachelor’s from Cal Poly Pomona in Chemical Engineering and minor in Material Science Engineering and am currently applying to graduate schools.

I was quite grateful to be offered a NASA Undergraduate Internship (UI) working with the NAI Icy Worlds team. My mentor is Laura M. Barge and she, too, was a NASA intern at one time so she had a lot of advice and tips for me. The beginning of my internship was spent doing quite a bit of research on hydrothermal vents and prebiotic chemistry which may have led to the emergence of life on early Earth. I became familiar with Dr. Russell’s research regarding how life first emerged on Earth, and started my internship with experiments called “chemical gardens” which are precipitates analogous to chimneys in the vents. Different types of chemical gardens were created to compare to field samples from Rio Tinto, Spain which is a Mars analog site. After making the chemical gardens, I was able to analyze the precipitates using ESEM (Environmental Scanning Electron Microscope) which provided us with magnified images of the structures. Once I became more familiar with the chemical garden reactions, I started creating green rusts, which is a precipitate formed from adding Fe2+ and Fe3+ to a sodium hydroxide solution.

Through the JPL MSP (Maximizing Student Potential) program, I focused on making green rusts using different iron ratios as well as different iron salts. For example, some green rusts were synthesized using iron chlorides whereas others used iron sulfates or carbonate and even sulfide. I conducted more research on the different types of green rusts and also analyzed how the double-layered hydroxide precipitates were affected by the iron ratios and organic compounds.

Looking to extend my stay at JPL, I applied to other internships via NASA’s OSSI (One Stop Shopping Initiative) site. I was then offered a summer internship that was free of cost to my mentor. By the time this internship started, my mentor had collaborated with Oak Crest Institute of Science, a non profit research institute in the LA area. We met biweekly off-lab and discussed our current experiments as well as future ones. Oak Crest had its own interns and we were all able to learn from each other regarding different laboratory techniques and equipment. For example, I was able to colorimetry ammonium detection. During this time, my experiments involved synthesizing various types of iron minerals in the lab and testing absorption of amino acids and sulfate as a function of time. I also tested iron minerals as redox catalysts for ammonium production.

While interning at JPL, I was a full time engineering student with two part time jobs on the side. I understand how hard it can be to juggle schoolwork and an actual job, but you just have to remind yourself that everything you are doing is to excel your career. JPL is quite understanding of students and will work with your schedule. Not only that, but my mentor gave me some extra time during finals week so that I could focus on studying. So before you start applying to internships, just make sure that you’ll have the time for it. Try to schedule your classes ahead of time and maybe even try to take some easier courses during the term you are applying for. This would ease your workload and you won’t feel too overwhelmed. Overall, though, I never felt stressed over the work I was doing at JPL. It’s time consuming, but not as difficult as you would think once you learn the procedures. I really enjoy what I do here.

I was quite surprised by how nice and welcoming everyone is. I was kind of expecting everyone to be too busy to talk to. I was very wrong. My mentor and I have a quiet hour each week where we discuss my experiments and how things are going, but also take time to talk about me. We have discussed my schoolwork, career, and she has given me such great advice. She even set up a meeting with her husband who’s an engineer here at JPL so that he could take a look at my resume and give me some helpful tips. The astrobiology group also now has a weekly meeting where others from the team talk about their projects and we get to learn what everyone else is working on. I used to feel intimidated by my supervisors, but now I can talk to them with ease. We even have some social hours planned for summer so that we can get to know each other better and talk to the new interns and give them advice.

I have been lucky enough to work with so many great people. Even though all interns came from different background and cultures, we were able to relate to one another. There was never a dull moment in lab because we would have so much fun just talking and learning from each other. I have never been much of an outdoors type of person, but one of the interns definitely is. With his encouragement, I made it to Joshua Tree for an overnight camping trip and I am so glad I did. It was definitely nothing like I had experienced before. The night was beautiful and the people were great. We have since planned many more adventures with current and former interns and I’m so excited to explore new places with them.

Intern Stories | Ryan Cameron

May 17, 2016
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My name is Ryan Cameron, and I love the JPL experience and lifestyle. Before I began this wonderful internship at JPL, I had been working in the landscaping industry for around 10 years. A couple years ago, I decided to go back to school, and try my hand in the field of science. I attended Tulsa Community College in Oklahoma while working in landscaping. I was introduced to the JPL internship opportunity by my chemistry professor at TCC. She let me know about a research challenge class that was being offered at my college that had NASA JPL scientists as mentors. I signed up for the research class, put in a lot of hours of research, and was fortunate enough to be recruited for an internship at JPL the following summer. I’m now taking classes at Pasadena City College, and am aiming for a degree in science or engineering.

I’m now a part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute Icy Worlds Team, working on the origins of life. My internship project is titled “Catalytic Diversity in Alkaline Hydrothermal Vent Systems”. My responsibility is to simulate early Earth environmental conditions of alkaline hydrothermal vents by working with different catalysts and ocean simulants. Dr. Michael Russell and Dr. Laurie Barge are my mentors in for this internship. They’ve been nothing but helpful for any undertaking I’m involved in or any future endeavors that I’m interested in.

The people at JPL surprised me the most while interning at JPL. I had this image in my head that the scientists at JPL would be ultra-focused on science in every waking moment of their lives. However, the people here have a wide variety of hobbies and activities outside of work, not related to science. I’m grateful to say that I’ve made a lot of great friendships with others who enjoy hiking and rock-climbing like I do. I’ve met a wide spectrum of folks here in Southern California, from full-time rock-climbers to fully committed top-level scientists in their field. I’ve learned a lot about different branches of science and engineering from casual discussions and from seminars given by JPL and Caltech scientists working on projects other than my own.

Words of encouragement for prospective or incoming interns: meet as many people as you can during your internship, and make sure you keep a healthy balance with school, work, and free time, especially if you are coming from out of state. It can get quite lonely at times if you are far away from your family and all of your close friendships. Cultivate friendships here at JPL, and spend as much time as you can with friends on your free time so that you can keep an optimistic perspective while being so far away from home. There are often some unusual sights to be seen: after grabbing lunch, I saw BB-8, the lovable droid from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, rolling around the JPL mall courtyard. BB-8 encountered a small-scale model of a JPL Mars rover and turned its head to say hello with a cute series of whistles and beeps. Randomly seeing this gently warmed my nerd heart. I’m grateful to be a part of the JPL experience.

Icy Worlds Does Education and Public Outreach

February 22, 2016
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The Icy Worlds E/PO program focuses on innovative methods, tangible materials, and engaging research activities for students and community members alike. As part of the program the team will teach students how to do spectroscopy with a compact disk; they will produce "Icy World Trading Cards;" and they will have students working with real satellite data to do spectroscopic measurements on the health of our nation's forests. The "Rainbows of Life" initiative seeks to make the science of light spectroscopy (a fancy term for looking at rainbows) fun and easy for students and adults.

Finally, for the fieldwork campaign in Alaska they have teamed with Ilisagvik College, Alaska's only Tribal College, and the team will be engaging the local Inupiat students in hands-on research pertaining to both terrestrial climate change and astrobiology.