Wednesday, August 26, 2015

First Internship: From Cold Calling to Astronomy Researcher

I'm sometimes asked how I got my first internship. Some students find it difficult to get accepted into an internship program when they don't have any experience, but can't get experience until someone gives them a chance. It can be a frustrating cycle for students just starting out.

The summer after my freshman year of undergraduate was packed with plans: take two chemistry courses at a community college to transfer to my main university, get LASIK eye surgery, and get a job. I didn't think that I had the time to take on a summer internship. But once I moved back to Pennsylvania for the summer and began searching for a summer job, I wondered if I could get paid to research. (I also took a job in retail at the mall, just in case.)

I obtained my first research position by “cold calling” professors. I lived just outside of Philadelphia where there is no shortage of excellent universities, including a few conducting astronomy research. A great professor, Dr. Larry DeWarf of Villanova University, gave me a chance.

Mendel Science Center at Villanova University - taken 2003

I was hired in a volunteer research position to assist with the Sun in Time project. I measured the emissions of magnesium-2 from the spectra (energy distribution of light) of 50 stars to determine each star’s period of revolution, which is related to their age. The goal was to identify Sun-like stars in the Solar Twin component of the project. I didn't care that it was a volunteer position; I just wanted the experience. The research I conducted was used in another student's poster presentation at the next American Astronomical Society meeting (which won first place) and was published in a paper at some point.

Congratulations on winning 1st place, Ryan! - taken 2004

A week later, I was offered a second research position in the same department, working for Dr. Ed Sion. Larry had talked to Ed about me and there was a little bit of grant funding available for a part-time student researcher. I modeled the spectra of cataclysmic variable stars that brighten at irregular times, then return to less active periods of quiescence. In particular, I researched the WW Ceti white dwarf system at outburst and compared it to its quiescent period. I also learned how to use a Unix-based operating system that summer.

Ed is known for encouraging students to publish their work. Based on that summer's research and future work conducted by others, I published my first paper in which I was the second author: A Far Ultraviolet Study of the Hot White Dwarf in the Dwarf Nova WW Ceti (2006).

My first internship led to my second one. Ed hired me on again the following summer to work on more cataclysmic variables as my only summer work. Because I had already been trained the summer before, I was able to work rapidly and model many such systems. I modeled ultraviolet emissions from the stellar accretion disks and the white dwarf stars. I'm sure that my research that summer was published in several system-specific papers, though I wasn't involved in the writing of any of them.

Model fitting from the WW Ceti paper

I am very grateful to the professors who gave this green student a chance and to the fellow students who helped to train me and befriend me over those summers. I proved to myself during those first two summers that I had what it took to be an astronomy researcher. The experience I gained helped prepare me for my NASA internships and graduate research. Thank you to professors and professionals who take the time from your own research to teach and uplift the next generations!

Monday, August 24, 2015

A High School Student's Glimpse into NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

In recalling my internship experiences in my last blog entry, it occurred to me that my first space-related professional experience was not a formal internship but rather a one-week-long job shadowing experience at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

I was a high school sophomore (10th grade) in Pennsylvania just outside of Philadelphia, barely 16 years old. My high school offers sophomores and juniors one or two weeks off from school to participate in school-sponsored special projects. By that point, I had gone to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama three times (out of six total) and had been completely bitten by the space bug. I knew that I wanted to work for NASA.

I lived approximately two hours from Greenbelt, Maryland where GSFC is located. At the time and perhaps still now, GSFC's Education Office had a job shadow program. I was accepted into the program and paired with four NASA employees for four days, focusing on one area each day.

I had a very talented and organized late grandmother who scrapbooked the experience for me. Not to dismember her efforts, I've taken photos of the scrapbook as they are, plastic sheet glare and all.

Entering Goddard Space Flight Center - February 2000

Hanging out with the astronaut spacesuit - February 2000

Future astronaut Laura sitting in a mock spacecraft - February 2000

My first day was with Dr. Cindy Hamel, environmental scientist and educator. She taught me some of the instruments and techniques that scientists and engineers use to study the universe around us, a field I now know to be called remote sensing. I distinctly remember that she used bat sonar as an example, though I can't quite remember the analogy.

My second day was with Dr. Herb Frey, planetary scientist and geologist. Pathfinder had just landed on Mars a couple years before and Mars Global Surveyor was in orbit. Both sent back detailed imagery of the red planet. In a world before any of the web tools we have access to today, I had never seen the Martian surface in such detail! Dr. Frey told me that he was working on identifying good landing sites for future Mars missions and allowed me to play with the imagery to see if I could spot a good location.

My third day was with Nick Shur, a satellite engineer. He gave me a tour of GSFC's high bays where satellites were being assembled and tested. I distinctly remember being puzzled by his statement that I would be his boss someday. I have no plans to become center director of GSFC, but I do understand what he meant now. Students who express an interest in a field early and act upon that interest often have a significant leg up compared to peers who enter a field later.

My fourth and final day was with Dr. Shaida Johnston. With her, I learned about the Landsat satellites. She allowed me to play with imagery from Landsat 7, the newest at the time. Again, in a world before Google Earth, I was fascinated by my ability to view the world from space. I zeroed in on areas of interest, including the volcano Mt. Etna in Sicily, which I would visit in person two years later.

Two years following this experience, I was accepted into college to study astrophysics, followed by numerous NASA and other space-related experiences. My career thus far has included all four areas that I was shown during the GSFC program: education and public outreach, planetary science, satellite and spacecraft engineering, and remote sensing. I am so grateful to those who took the time to arrange this experience for a curious high school student! As I was encouraged along the way, I hope to encourage other students who may be just as curious.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

How to Acquire an Intern

I’m on vacation with my family up north, but I’m still keeping up with space news. A Twitter posting has gotten me thinking and I have a little bit of time to write my thoughts. The question: How do you acquire an intern?

I’m surprised by the question. In my experience, there are an overwhelming number of potential interns for a limited number of internships. Students usually throw themselves at companies/organizations that offer internships. My first thought was: If you don’t know how to acquire an intern, you shouldn’t acquire an intern.

The question was posed to advertise a local lecture panel that a technology group is hosting. For $5 - $10 and two hours, several speakers will tell the audience how to find and get interns. I can’t imagine what they’ll talk about for two hours. I’m tempted to attend just to find out how five speakers will fill two hours on this topic without getting very repetitive.

I’ve held several internships in my early career, some paid, some unpaid, some official and established, some unofficial last-minute arrangements. I’ve enjoyed all of them. I’ve found all of them to be valuable learning experiences and worthwhile commitments. I’ve also heard experiences of friends and colleagues who have had poor internship experiences or who have witnessed poor internship experiences. How to design a good internship is more important and more difficult than how to acquire an intern.

The following is my opinion from my experience, for what it’s worth:

Write a job description with a clear project outline and deliverable. Never, ever hire an intern without a clear plan for what he/she will be doing with his/her time. The worst internship experiences are the internships on paper, positions that look good on a resume but give the intern no responsibilities and no accomplishments. At the end of the internship, the intern should be able to say that it was more than sitting at a desk, attending meetings, and meeting a few people. Treat the intern like any other employee who can produce something valuable. Requiring a deliverable at the end of the internship helps to focus the intern’s attention and time. Writing a job description will help you to focus on who to hire.

Promote the internship. Larger companies/organizations will have interns visiting their websites to find opportunities. Smaller companies/organizations may not have that luxury of interns coming to them. Social media is your friend. Use whatever internet and social media methods are available to you to advertise opportunities widely. A good opportunity will be spread widely. Contact key educational institutions to help spread the word. Research how students find internships by typing phrases like “list of space internships” into Google and find key listings or websites where you can advertise. Enlist the assistance of previous interns and current employees. Skip paper advertisements and direct mailings that will most likely go straight to the trash.

Recruit and treat interns as you would any other employee. Interns are temporary employees, whether paid or unpaid. To treat them otherwise does them and your company a disservice. Interns may need more guidance and oversight, but they should be treated as professionals, regardless of their age. High school and college students will feel disrespected if you treat them as children. The recruitment process for interns may not be as extensive as a permanent employee process, but there should still be a process. Interns should be expected to work and produce as any other new employee just starting out would.

Decide ahead of time how you will handle logistics. Non-locals will have more needs than locals such as travel and lodging arrangements. Foreign nationals may have more needs than citizens depending on workplace security policies. Interns may have office needs. Interns may also work remotely from around the world. Interns should have one or several supervisors who need to be prepared to teach and train. Interns should be held accountable to one or more supervisors who will expect that their time is being used productively. Be prepared to issue proper documentation if education credit is being issued for an internship.

To pay or not to pay. Both paid and unpaid internships are valuable. Interns will be interested in your opportunity either way. If you decide to go the unpaid route, your pool of potential interns may be limited and you may not get the most highly qualified applicants. Look into the legality of not paying workers. I’ve held three unpaid internships and there was never an issue, but I’m not familiar with the rules. Younger or less experienced interns will not expect much in terms of pay, but older or more experienced interns will be more selective.

I work for a small start-up. Every single talk I’ve given to a student group lately has asked me whether my company hires interns or had students approach me after the talk, often with resumes in hand. Students contact me via LinkedIn asking for internship opportunities. If I were to post an internship opportunity right now on my Twitter account, even with my small following, it would get retweeted several times. Students are thirsty for the opportunity to become interns. If you can’t find them, you don’t deserve them. Kudos to any company or organization that offers this valuable experience to eager workers who desire to learn.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Playing Tourist at Kennedy Space Center with FIRST Robotics

It's always fun to play tourist at Kennedy Space Center! No matter how many times I've seen the sights, it never gets old. The excitement is infectious. Sometimes I need a jolt of space geekery to remind myself why I do what I do in this industry every day.

My high school FIRST Robotics team, 709 the Femme Tech Fatale, began during my junior year. The next year, kind of by default, I was co-captain with one of my best friends. We were just beginning so we were figuring our way through the challenges of building a robot and competing. Additionally, we were an all-girls high school, so we felt the burn of sexism when we competed with the mostly male crowd. This was over a decade ago so I don't know how much of that has changed, but I do know that my high school team is going strong.

My friend Barry recently organized a regional FIRST Robotics alumni group, and with it, a fun day at Kennedy Space Center. I don't pass up chances to see cool space stuff no matter how many times I'd seen it before, so I signed up. Knowing that the group would be made up of mostly college students, I also put on my mentoring hat and packed some business cards.

What student tour isn't complete without a welcome from KSC Director Bob Cabana enticing us to work at NASA? The agenda began with a “networking event” but I didn't know what that entailed. I was surprised to see several tables set up with NASA and contractor stations for speed networking – what a great idea! We split into small groups and spent 5 minutes at each table. Most of the spiels were directed toward current students seeking internships, but I took the opportunity to learn about companies and programs that I didn't know much about.

Thanks for the welcome, Bob!

I'm holding a mini Orion, the first of many Orions I'd see today!

Standing next to the SLS scale mock-up. Will I ever stand next to the real thing?

Lockheed Martin was gracious enough to let us tour two of their high bays, including the area that currently houses the EFT-1 Orion crew capsule test article that launched last December. Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed. Of all the sights on the tour, those were the only places I had never been, likely because I've never been on a tour sponsored in part by Lockheed Martin.

The Orion prototype was impressive and beautiful. I swear that when we first walked in, I could smell space! I was so tempted to reach out and touch the thermal tiles, wondering if they felt like space shuttle tiles, but of course that was strictly not allowed. I managed to ask one of the senior engineers what he thought the advantages of Orion is over Boeing's CST-100 or SpaceX's Dragon. Different missions, different design was his abbreviated response. He was especially proud that his capsule could fly in deep space.

Lunch at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex's Saturn V Center was under an Apollo lunar lander. Although I had been there many times before, I eagerly listened to former tour guide Barry explain the parts of the Saturn V rocket. Thanks, Barry!

The LEM landing on our heads at lunch.

Thanks for a great tour, Barry!

I don't remember ever seeing the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) so empty! There was some activity going on, of course. A crawler is being modified to accommodate the future Space Launch System (SLS) and the VAB itself being modified. It was odd to see the upper-level platforms for the space shuttle parts gone, platforms that I once stood on. The spare external tanks aren't even being stored in there anymore. All that was left was a basic mock-up of Orion standing alone in the huge high bay.

Looking up at the VAB makes my camera blurry.

The Space Shuttle still stands tall in the VAB!

Peering up at the VAB.

Orion mock-up in the VAB.

Crawler modifications in the VAB.

Walking around the press site, memories returned. My second space shuttle launch viewing was at the press site, STS-113 in 2002. So much has changed since then. Even the countdown clock has been replaced with a newer version. I can see how the old timers get lost in their memories out at the Cape and space center.

The huge building and the tiny unused launch pad beside it.

The KSC Press Site, where I saw my second space shuttle launch in 2002.
Thanks FIRST Robotics Alumni Network!

Thank you to Barry, Rich, Chris, and the other volunteers who contributed to a fun space day!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Comingling Business & Science? The Intersection of Scientist and NewSpace Industry Analyst

I've been putting my “newspace” business hat on lately. As a trained scientist, thinking in terms of business is not what I'm used to. Compared to pure scientific research, there are different priorities, different time scales, and different lingos. I'm fairly proficient in business-speak now that I've been trained and working around it for a number of years. I even served as a behind-the-scenes judge for the NewSpace Business Plan Competition a couple of years ago. I'm still sometimes surprised at how much I've been able to pick up from the business world.

I credit the majority of my training to NewSpace Global CEO Richard David (he goes by many names) who took me on as an industry analyst intern while I was still a planetary science graduate student. Richard's philosophy was that it was easier to train scientists and engineers to think as businesspeople than to train businesspeople to think technically in order to analyze a technical market. He readily took me on and trained me himself in what he colloquially called an MBA crash course.

The structure of NSG, at least at the time, was that the majority of the staff were part-time temporary interns. I was hired as an intern for the analyst team, but circumstances quickly changed. Just a couple of weeks after being hired, I assumed leadership of the analyst team under Richard who also acted as the Chief Analyst. In this role as lead analyst, I interviewed, hired, and trained new interns and supervised all current analyst interns.

The interns represented a variety of backgrounds and training and lived all over the world, so coordination was sometimes rather difficult. Training and supervising the interns while simultaneously still being trained by Richard helped me learn a tremendous amount of information in a short period of time. To use the old catchphrase, I was drinking water from a fire hose.

I was responsible for the overall movement in the aerospace and related industry analysis ranking list, the addition of new companies to the list, interviewing or coordinating interviews with the management of ranked companies, and accurately representing these ranked companies on the NSG website. I also wrote an analyst series for the NSG monthly newsletter and lead special projects such as the addition of new features on the NSG website and the deep-diving into a specific company or sub-industry. In a short period of time, this scientist was not only thinking like an industry analyst, I was an emerging voice.

NSG SpaceX tour, the launch pad - Oct. 2012

NSG SpaceX tour, the rocket - Oct. 2012

After approximately one year of working at NSG, Richard offered me a promotion to senior analyst. I had been working toward that promotion and earned it, but when the time came, I couldn't take it. I was still trying to finish my doctorate, I had started my full-time job at CASIS a few months prior, and I was running into more and more conflict of interest issues. I decided to step down from NSG after just over a year with the company. With me I took fond memories and years' worth of aerospace industry analysis training packed into a year.

Unfortunately, NSG and its management seems to have gone mum since I left. I haven't heard from him or seen him around locally, so I don't know how Richard and the company are fairing. I wish them all the best and hope to hear great things about NSG in the future!

As for myself, I'm becoming more and more drawn to the intersection of science and aerospace industry. I'm an analyst by nature, focused on how the details affect the big picture. I'm contemplating doing more with this side of my brain in the future. Now, when I put my “newspace” business hat on, it's thanks to Richard that I wear one.

Note: I no longer have any association with Richard David or Dick Rocket.