In May of 2013 I was selected for a summer internship at NASA Langley. I remember pouring over my application in early February, agonizing over every word and syllable. I knew a high-schooler had a slim chance of landing at NASA’s doorstep, but you can’t blame me for trying. I remember sitting behind the wheel of my crippled 1994 Buick with its peeling leather seats and over-heated interior and doing mental backflips as the coordinator on the other end explained my position, days after I had received notice of my acceptance. I was being offered a summer internship at the Advanced Materials and Processing Lab at NASA Langley. Yeah, okay, so I hadn’t event graduated high school at that point – imagine my surprise!
Any synonym of excited would be an insulting understatement. I was ecstatic. Despite attending an amazing space academy the summer before, taking six AP classes the previous year, and co-founding a math and science honor society at my high school, I still felt undeserving. And apprehensive. What if I made a fool of myself in the most prestigious space agency? What if I couldn’t perform well on my project? What if I blew something up? (Okay, unlikely, but you get the picture.)
After a month of agonizing preparation – finding a two-month lease, requesting special permission from my school to leave a week early, getting ready to graduate – I was ready to leave for Langley. I waved my small-town high school goodbye and drove to Hampton, VA in my stuttering silver Buick, ready to embark on an amazing adventure. Throughout my internship I compiled a list of things you might discover while interning at NASA.
Going through the online pre-work tutorial on cyber security made me hyperaware and borderline paranoid of fishing schemes and data mining. I suddenly felt my social media presence was under national scrutiny. I frantically deleted my blog, cleaned up my Instagram, and vowed to refrain from posting anything work-related on Facebook. I even sat my parents down and had a “serious talk” with them about how I wouldn’t be able to discuss the work I would be doing. Drastic, I know, but working for a government agency will do that to you. When I started my internship, I even asked my mentor if I should begin encrypting my files. He gave me a peculiar look and shook his head. That was the end of my paranoia.
2. You might not get to work in a space capsule.
Perhaps I wasn’t ready to work in the ISS, but the idea of NASA conjured up expectations of a clinically white, space-age office with 40-inch computer monitors and an array of blinking lights. Woe was I. Everyone had a humble desktop, a squeaky desk chair, and even a few photos of their family on their desk. It was almost like…a regular office. There were even a couple coffee stains on the carpet.
3. You might realize how little you really know.
I had worked in a geotechnical consulting laboratory the previous two years before coming to Langley, but nothing had prepared me for the intense material science that was happening in my branch. I was going to have to do some light reading on my breaks to catch up. In-between working on my equipment database, conducting polymer testing, and attending lab safety lectures, I was hitting the books hard. It’s those moments that make you realize just how desperately you want to pursue a degree. You might realize how little you really know, but one day you just might know enough to work for NASA.
4. You might discover a hidden passion.
Langley was holding a LEGO NXT robotics competition for its interns with cash prizes for the winners. Besides a little bit of coding experience from building a company’s website, I didn’t know the first thing about programming or robotics. Despite this, I dove in head first. A couple guys in my branch and I assembled a team and named ourselves (wait for it) the Killabytes. We set off on programming an autonomous robot that would complete a series of tasks in a short period of time. This was my first taste of Boolean logic and I couldn’t wait to delve deeper. In short, we didn’t win the competition, but I wasn’t finished with programming just yet. Seizing opportunities led me to discover a new passion. I took a class in Fortran programming my first semester of college and I’m currently teaching two computer science classes this spring as a lab instructor.
5. You might make unbelievable connections.
I kid you not, on my way back from lunch one day, I bumped into a chemistry teacher from my high school as she was walking with the Coordinator of Technology in Education from Longwood University. My teacher immediately swooned over me, flooding me with questions about the work I was doing, and quickly asked me if I could come in and speak to a group of teachers at a technology conference being hosted here on base, at Langley. I agreed and whipped together a sleek presentation on project-based learning that I presented the next morning.
6. You might fall in love.
My internship coordinator once joked about how many wedding invitations she’s received in her years of coordinating the program. It’s true: when you get together a group of highly intelligent, motivated individuals, romance is bound to happen. My significant other and I met at an intern get-together and we clicked automatically. We’re both aerospace majors and STS (Science, Technology, and Society) minors. Plans to rule the world someday have ensued.
7. You might realize that there’s more to your dreams than just working at a specific agency, company, laboratory, etc.
I loved working at NASA Langley, but it wasn’t because of the million dollar spectrometers or the 3D printers or the F-22 air shows during lunch. The challenging atmosphere combined with a driven group people made it feel like a place I belonged. I realized I didn’t just want to work for NASA someday, but I want to make an impact on my chosen career field, wherever that might be. NASA may be part of the dream, but there is another universe of opportunities waiting to be explored.
If you’d like to read more about my summer experience, check out my article for the Langley Student Spotlight here!