On being a NASA Ames International Intern

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Me and my lab group, simply “blown away” by the wind tunnel at NASA Ames.

At the start of June, 2015 I embarked on the greatest experience I have ever been afforded – to intern at NASA Ames Research Center in California for 10 weeks. I know the whole “I’ve dreamt of doing X since I was a kid….” is such a cliché, but my name is Lauren Mc Keown and I am cheesy 😉 I have aspired to work for NASA ever since I learned that planetary objects other than Earth harbor water, an essential ingredient for life. As a teenager, I spent many evenings perusing NASA.gov, from watching live rocket launches and space walks, to discovering the latest research on planetary surface activity. I knew that getting accepted on an internship, let alone eventually working at NASA as a non-U.S. citizen would be challenging. But my dream echoed JFK’s same sentiments which sent the U.S. to the Moon – I would end up at NASA one day, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

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View from outside the gates at NASA Ames: space shuttle mockup.

With the support of my family, I’ve been working hard to put the dream into action for years. Though space outreach hadn’t quite “taken off” yet here, I was fortunate to get to visit NASA Kennedy and JPL Space Centers while we vacationed in the U.S. during my teens. I attended open lectures and I gained advice from as many people as possible on how to set about a career at NASA. I followed this up with a 4 year BSc in Physics with Astronomy and Space Science at University College Dublin. This included a 6 month Study Abroad Program at San José State University in California where my particular interest in planets was fuelled through an astronomy class taught by NASA Ames planetary scientist, Dr. Olenka Hubickyj. I knew wholeheartedly that I wanted to be a part of the community working to better our understanding of the Solar System and its origins. I just didn’t know how exactly I would ever get inside the gates of NASA with my Irish-harp-emblazoned purple passport.

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Some views on my cycle to work every day!

Fast forward 11 years later and here I was, living and working at NASA Ames…albeit holding a red “VISITOR” badge, which signified the requirement of being accompanied through those gates by an escort – i.e. my very patient and kind internship advisor, Dr. Yuri Griko. Throughout those 10 weeks, I very often stood gazing at the giant centerpiece of Ames, Hangar One, introspectively slapping myself to truly believe I was working there. I was afforded this experience through funding provided by the Irish Research Council and the unwavering support of my supervisor, Dr. Mary Bourke who allowed me to take time out of my Ph.D. to pursue this invaluable opportunity. The International Internship which funded accommodation, visa, flights and subsistence for the 10 week duration, sought to give non – U.S. students the chance to conduct research for the summer at NASA. I was thrilled to have been chosen to represent the Irish contingent (population, 2) along with Conor O’ Toole, an MSc in Space Science and Technology student from UCD who quickly became a dinner buddy and friend as we both became acquainted with life in Mountain View.

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The day my NASA badge was upgraded to “No Escort”….badge now proudly hanging up in my room.

In 2015, the NASA International Internship program at Ames was host to ~ 30 international interns out of close to 1000 U.S. interns, so you can imagine how thrilled I felt to be included in that demographic. Given my background in physics, my current pursuits in planetary science and my Junior Cert – level knowledge of biology, you might also imagine my surprise at being assigned a project in the Space Biosciences Division. But this was the first unanticipated discovery I had while at Ames – that summer internships at Ames aim to foster a multidisciplinary approach to space science research and that the skill-set acquired in my undergrad was widely transferable across disciplines. While I could contribute my skills in data handling to the project, I could learn a lot from my colleagues who had expertise in areas ranging from biology to high school teaching. My project endeavoured to bridge a handful of disciplines with one common goal of investigating methods to facilitate long haul human spaceflight. I can’t divulge much more about it but I can say that the research was compelling and will certainly GO FAR….

I’ll get my coat 😉

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V I E W S. Sunset over Hangar One, landmark of the San Francisco Bay Area. This photo was taken on an evening cycle back from the supermarket.

Work + Play

The second major discovery I had (that I can disclose) was that NASA isn’t just all about hard work (though every second of “hard work” at NASA was well and truly a pleasure for me). There were plenty of mixers, BBQ’s, symposia and even a New Horizons flyby celebration! I felt particularly privileged to attend this event – it was exclusive to NASA employees from all research centers to get the first look at Pluto up close and to be there while New Horizons mission team members celebrated on screen. There was an incredible sense of community spirit and the accomplishments of the human race felt very close to home for me, for the first time. I imagine this feeling is omnipresent for mission specialists and I wonder if they ever get a break from that arresting sense of awe…oh you know, in between trying to direct things towards dwarf planets 150 million kilometres away!

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Myself and my lab group sporting our day-to-day attire at NASA Ames :-p CA temperatures were often too high for spacesuits.

Diversity at NASA

Perhaps the most important thing I learned first-hand during my internship at NASA Ames, is that science at NASA today has no uniform. Being blonde, equipped to code with shellac nails, forever giving conference presentations in heels and nicknamed “Schpeldon” (some sort of ditzy/clever/bubbly/socially-awkward hybrid of Penny and Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory) by my best friend, I had my apprehensions when heading to NASA that in spite of my accomplishments for which I worked tirelessly, I would not be taken seriously due to my “femme” exterior.

Stereotyping is an issue which many face in STEM…the reverb of which has resulted in such internet sensations as “mohawk guy” (or, one of the JPL engineers who helped to put the Curiosity Rover on Mars all while sporting an atypical hairstyle), and the #ILookLikeAnEngineer movement initiated by a 22 year old female engineer who was judged by internet trolls to be too attractive to develop software. I am often told I don’t look like a scientist by those who don’t even work in the field themselves. This has at times made me question whether I should wear what I truly feel most confident in, or bother curling my hair as I like to. Whether I should express the aspects of my personality which are not specifically derived from my love of science, whether my exterior expression of femininity will ultimately hamper my career. So it was a truly enlightening and refreshing experience for me to meet the many NASA scientists who don’t fit the imaginary uniform either. During my time inside the NASA gates, I saw women – including a blonde woman in heels :-), people of color, members of the LGBT community, high school students, men in suits, men in shorts and tee-shirts, women in suits, women in shorts and tee-shirts, many, many tattoes and a man who cycled a furry bumblebee bicycle everywhere.

Diversity at NASA is highlighted by groups such as Women@NASA, NASA LGBT Advisory Group, NASA African American Advisory Group, among others and was celebrated from the beginning of my internship at the intern welcoming address. We watched a video which highlighted the pioneering women and people of color at NASA who fought hard for equal treatment and to pave the way for other generations. I felt that this transparency was incredibly important – particularly for the high school students among us. We were all encouraged to get involved with these groups, with a highlight being invited to march at the annual San Francisco Pride Parade 2015. Of course, the Bay area is one of the more liberal locations to build a NASA research center and I am well aware that the same sense of inclusivity may not be experienced elsewhere or indeed, may vary in intensity from one minority group to another. However, I believe visibility to be incredibly important in encouraging people from all backgrounds to consider a career in STEM and so I wanted to share my very positive experience in which I and many fellow interns felt welcome, respected and valued at NASA Ames. It has made me slightly less shaky today as I wing my eyeliner and stand in my black pointed-toe courts, shirt and pencil skirt to deliver my Ph.D. research results, and it has made me all the more confident in my pursuit of a career in planetary science.

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Me, advocating for a separation of appearance and ability at the Women@Ames stand on our final poster presentation day.

The benefits of those 10 weeks at NASA Ames were manifold. I made connections with friends and colleagues that will last a lifetime. I improved my data reduction skills which have been paramount to my Ph.D. research on subliming carbon dioxide ice on Mars. Now that I have set foot inside the gates of NASA Ames and I have a very real grasp of what it is like to work there, I am motivated more and more to return in the future. My career goals have become clearer and I would love to establish an affiliation with a NASA research center while expanding the planetary science research community here in Ireland. I want to increase the visibility of diversity in STEM and enable future students in Ireland to navigate a career in planetary science, so that one – day getting there will of course be hard, but it won’t be so hard.

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One of the proudest documents I own…hopefully the next one will be a published paper!
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3 Responses to On being a NASA Ames International Intern

  1. Dear Lauren, I’m so glad to hear that you had a great experience at Ames! We are hoping more students from Ireland will be able to participate in our program. Thank you for helping to spread the word about our program and for your great comments in support of diversity. One note on the funding of the internship- your participation was entirely funded by your home institution as all our internships in the NASA International Internship program are- so be sure to thank them! I look forward to seeing your name in print on your first paper and many after that. Regards, Krisstina Wilmoth, NASA International Internships and NASA Ames Dean of Students.

    • mckeowla says:

      Dear Krisstina,
      Many thanks for your kind words! I realise upon rereading that I may not have clarified within this post that the entirety of my funding was provided by the Irish Research Council. Thank you very much for bringing this to my attention. I have and will continue to thank them for making this invaluable opportunity possible! Notice of the funding has been published on our page here: https://earthandplanetary.wordpress.com/2015/06/08/congratulations-nasa-international-internship/

      Again, thank you so much for your comment and well wishes for future publications. I hope to return to Ames in future and wish this years’ interns the same wonderful experience that I had.
      Kind regards,
      Lauren.

    • mckeowla says:

      Krisstina,

      I have also just amended this post to better clarify the funding body – many thanks again!

      Lauren.

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