‘Nirvana’ for Scientists... and Students

Summer internships at two renowned NASA research centers leave lasting impression for engineering students.

10/27/2010 - By: John Trent

Marvin Smith always wanted to be an astronaut.

The odds of that ever happening, of course, are pretty astronomical. Some sources put the odds at about 13 million to 1.

Thanks to a summer internship with NASA, however, Smith was able to experience the next best thing.

“If this is the closest I’m ever going to get to being an astronaut,” Smith said recently, “then that’s a pretty rewarding experience.”

Smith, along with three other students in the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Engineering, landed their coveted internships through a Nevada Space Grant Consortium grant awarded to George Bebis, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

It was something Smith won’t soon forget.

“I learned quite a bit,” said Smith, a 24-year-old computer science major from Silver Springs, Nev., who spent the summer at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. Smith’s work focused on removing outliers from stereo reconstruction through the creation of filters used for pixelating images of the Moon and Mars. “It was an amazing experience.”

Joshua Gleason, a 23-year-old junior majoring in computer science from Las Vegas, agreed that his time spent at NASA Ames was phenomenally productive. He was one of 130 summer interns working at the massive Ames campus, and was part of the Intelligent Robotics Group, which focuses on planetary robots.

Gleason came away impressed not only by the creativity and productivity of the researchers he worked with, but by their passion.

“It was probably the first place I’ve ever been where everybody wants to be there,” said Gleason, who added that he worked especially hard last spring in Bebis’ Computer Science 320 class, hoping to earn consideration for one of the four internship slots from the university.

“I really wanted to make it happen,” Gleason said. “I tried really hard to prove I was qualified for the internship, and ultimately, it paid off.”

In addition to his work on developing an algorithm that would allow autonomous, computerized inspections along massive oil pipelines – rather than the current method of checking for possible ruptures, which requires planes to travel to dangerously low elevations of only 500 feet above the ground – Gleason rubbed elbows with some of the finest minds in the world.

“NASA is a very cool place to be,” he said. “The only cooler place in the world might be Google. It was a really great learning experience. I probably learned more this summer than in any semester.”

Steven Wood, a 36-year-old returning student who is pursuing a degree in computer science at Nevada after having worked in information technology for several years, did his internship at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

The former Marine from Lexington, Ky., was part of the Mobility and Robotics Section at JPL, with the Surface System Perception Group.

He said that even after years of robot rovers exploring the surface of Mars, “there is nothing routine about sending or controlling missions to Mars.” To illustrate his point, he noted that it takes anywhere from three minutes to 20 minutes for radio commands to travel from Earth to Mars.

“You have one shot at sending commands,” he said of the intricate, painstaking process involved with getting a rover to move even a few centimeters on the surface of Mars.

He said at first glance, JPL can appear to be nothing more than a series of non-descript buildings. What happens inside, however, is hardly mundane.

“The scientists are doing some pretty wild stuff in those buildings,” he said. “You just don’t know about it.”

“I call it ‘nirvana for scientists,’” said Wood, who is still working this fall on creating an application that will overlay hazard information and calculate the cost for a rover to cross a certain pre-determined route on the Mars surface. The application will combine Mars surface information from various sources to allow mission planners to quickly select safe, efficient routes for NASA’s newest rover, Curiosity, when it reaches the planet in the summer of 2012.

“I’m on phase No. 4 right now,” he said of his summer project, which has become the basis of continued independent study. “Hopefully this application will make the decisions on where to travel much easier. I would tell anyone if they had to opportunity to work at JPL … definitely work there.”

Tim Nelson, a 22-year-old computer science major from Smith Valley, Nev., could feel the unique energy at JPL from the moment he arrived this summer.

“My first day when I walked in, I couldn’t help but notice the busy, excited energy that seems to be flowing through every hallway of every building on that campus,” said Nelson, who hopes one day to work in industrial robotics development. “Everyone there is moving at a quick and busy pace, and you can tell that they are incredibly excited about whatever project or field they are working in.”

What struck Nelson, too, was how accommodating and friendly all levels of JPL staff were toward the student interns.

“Everyone there is incredibly welcoming and nice,” he said. “Even the highest levels of managers or engineers would be happy to stop their work for a few minutes to explain to me what they were doing, probably due to the fact that they love what they are doing.

“I definitely got the sense that everyone working there wants to be at work there, and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I’m sure they probably go home and just continue working on their projects for fun. The atmosphere was always buzzing with positive, excited energy.”

Nelson said the internship couldn’t have been more valuable.

“It has brought me an incredible amount closer to my goals,” he said. “Boasting an internship with NASA on my resume – and hopefully two internships at NASA after this coming summer – will definitely grab future employers’ attention.

“To work at such a historically significant site as JPL is mind-blowing enough, but all the positives that come out of it, the contacts made, the skills learned, the research done, and the experience gained, are all incredibly beneficial to any student’s future. But even if they weren’t, the experience alone is reason enough to apply for this internship.”

Bebis said Nelson’s view of the value of the internship was correct. He said if anything, NASA is one of those acronyms that has a tendency to rise off the page of a resume.

“It’s very important for students to do as much as they can to compete, to build their record so that they can get the best job possible,” Bebis said. “A NASA internship can be quite valuable from that perspective.”

As far as Smith was concerned, it was almost as good as blasting off into space.

“We were building actual models to be used in Google Mars and Google Moon,” he said. “If you are part of a project involving NASA, then that’s something that people will always notice. “


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