Monday, July 26, 2010

Senior Year Can Wait -- I'm Working at JPL!

Imagine you're at school, munching on a cheeseburger during lunch, just chatting with your friends about how awesome it is that NASA is sending a rover to Mars. Now imagine eating a cheeseburger again, except you're now talking to some of the top-notch scientists and engineers in the world who are actually working on the rover. This is just one of the many opportunities a high school intern can experience at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

So far, my eight-week internship here at JPL has been amazing. I became a summer intern through the INSPIRE program (Interdisciplinary National Science Project Incorporating Research and Education Experience), a nationwide program across 10 NASA centers. The program gives incoming high school seniors the opportunity to spend the summer working in a professional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) environment. At my high school, I am involved in the physics team, Science Bowl, Ocean Science Bowl, astronomy club and physics club. Clearly, I love science and I am thinking about majoring in engineering or computer science. I would say the most important prerequisite for a JPL internship is a strong interest in and passion for science, technology, engineering or math.

This summer, I am working with the Mars Public Engagement team. One of my main projects is to create a virtual tour of the possible landing sites of the Curiosity rover that will launch in late 2011. This opportunity is really cool because I get to chat with a Mars scientist and learn about all the landing sites. Several of my other projects involve designing and adding more features to Mars websites using HTML, CSS, Photoshop, Illustrator and other software programs. I've also contributed posts about the Curiosity rover for Facebook and Twitter, in addition to writing spotlights about Curiosity that go on NASA's Mars Exploration Program website and on the JPL Mars homepage. It's really cool seeing my work on official NASA/JPL websites! One of the other interns in my program is working hands-on in building an environmental control system for Curiosity, while another is working with databases and algorithms, and another is working with coding and software for robots.

While the INSPIRE program is common to all NASA centers, SpaceSHIP is a high school internship program that is specific to JPL. Students need to live within 50 miles of the lab, but in general, the high school students do similar work. Space Grant is another NASA program that accepts high school students.

What I like a lot about JPL is the work environment. It's professional yet laid back. Workplace doors are decorated with witty science jokes, scientists and engineers laugh and joke in the cafeteria, employees will ask you about your day in the elevator and everyone is invited to listen to lectures by renowned scientists. It kind of reminds me of a college campus, but much better! It's a place where ideas, even those of a high school intern, are heard, and creativity is allowed to bloom. The workplace is not intimidating, and I feel very comfortable here despite being just 17 years old. I am not treated as a high school student but as a contributing member of the team. While some of my friends are filing papers or running errands at other internships, I get to do what I like here at JPL in an experience of a lifetime!

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