Not Your Average Summer Internship

NASA summer interns are a tremendous asset for improving data, products, and services at the ESDIS Project Office and at DAACs across the country.

When anyone asks Jack Miller what he did this past summer, he can describe the new augmented reality version of the Worldview satellite imagery exploration tool that he helped create. Vincent Inverso and Mike Walker may soon be able to show colleagues an Earthdata Search data recommendation feature on which they worked, and Paul Lin and Diane Portillo might see Earth science researchers learning how to more effectively write code for cloud computing using materials they helped develop.

These are some of the projects on which interns supporting NASA’s Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) Project worked this summer. ESDIS manages the science systems of NASA’s Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS), including the EOSDIS Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs). Each summer ESDIS hosts interns who work on various tasks in the ESDIS Project Office and at DAACs across the country. These internships provide a two-way benefit: For the interns, this is a real-world application of their academic training; for the EOSDIS, interns help advance numerous projects designed to improve data, products, and services.

2018 ESDIS Project Office interns
Four of the six ESDIS Project Office summer interns (left to right): Vincent Inverso, Paul Lin, Diane Portillo, and Mike Walker. NASA EOSDIS image.

The six ESDIS interns, along with two interns at NASA’s Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center (GES DISC), are among the more than 400 summer interns at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. The high school, college, and graduate school students (including recent graduates) participating in this highly-selective program are helping to further mission and project-critical tasks, learning the intricacies of a government agency, and, of course, mastering reams of NASA acronyms.

“The work here is very applied,” says ESDIS intern Vincent Inverso, a computer science Master’s degree candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. “The work in school is more geared toward building up your theoretical knowledge, whereas this is more of a practical skillset that we’re learning.”

Vincent is working with Mike Walker, a University of Maryland-College Park rising senior information science major, on a market basket recommendation algorithm for Earthdata Search. Vincent and Mike describe their project as being similar to the recommendations customers receive when they order specific products from online services like Amazon. “Our goal is to enable recommendations of specific EOSDIS data sets based on what data users are downloading or searching for,” says Mike.

Meanwhile, Paul Lin, a University of Pennsylvania rising sophomore earning a double-major in Earth science and international relations, and Diane Portillo, a recent Bachelor’s degree graduate in environmental science from Chicago’s DePaul University, are collaborating on an ESDIS cloud computing effort called Cloud Science Computing for Earth Scientists. “We are advocating for cloud computing among Earth scientists and teaching scientists without deep programming skills how to utilize programming within their knowledge and within their reach,” Paul explains.

ESDIS Project Office intern Mauricia Brown
ESDIS Project Office intern Mauricia Brown displaying a poster about her work at the annual Goddard Summer Poster Session. NASA EOSDIS image.

Another ESDIS intern, Mauricia Brown, is learning how to use Adobe Creative Suite and Adobe Connect to support ESDIS Project communications efforts. Mauricia is a rising sophomore general studies (science emphasis) major at Montgomery College in Silver Spring, MD. “These are opportunities I never would have at Montgomery College,” she says. “Putting all of this work—the communication and the graphic design elements—together is really the icing on the cake for me.”

Jack Miller, the final ESDIS intern, is developing a new Worldview Augmented Reality, or Worldview AR, application. Jack will finish his Master’s degree in mechanical engineering and human computer interaction at Iowa State University in Ames, IA, this fall and concurrently start a PhD program. He is taking satellite imagery from Global Imagery Browse Services (GIBS) and incorporating it into an augmented reality application in order to visualize the imagery in the real world. “This is similar to the existing Worldview program, but this is in 3D,” he says. “This is a new way to interact with and visualize GIBS imagery.”

Jack’s work this summer contributed to his being selected as one of 15 recipients of a John Mather Nobel Scholarship. The scholarship was established by Goddard Senior Astrophysicist, Goddard Fellow, and Nobel Laureate Dr. John Mather and his wife and is awarded to summer interns at Goddard. Along with being designated a “John Mather Nobel Scholar,” Jack and his fellow award recipients each receive a $3,000 scientific travel grant over a two-year period.

GES DISC interns Jack Corcoran and Sky Wang.
GES DISC interns Jack Corcoran (left) and Sky Wang (right) are using machine learning to explore the potential for using tweets to help validate GPM precipitation data. NASA EOSDIS image.

Also working at Goddard this summer are two interns supporting GES DISC projects: Jack Corcoran and Sky Wang. The two are working on a project using imagery and documents from the Twitter social media platform to derive precipitation information to potentially help validate data from the joint NASA/Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission. Sky is drawing on his background in machine learning to use neural networks to classify tweets. “The data that we’re aiming to collect from the tweets includes not only whether it’s precipitating or not, but also the precipitation type, like rain, snow, etc., along with the precipitation intensity, like how many millimeters per hour,” says Sky, a rising sophomore computer science major at the University of Michigan.

Jack, a rising senior mathematics major at Cornell University, is looking at images linked to tweets and classifying whether these images contain precipitation and related data or are not related to precipitation. “If you have a tweet that says ‘it’s raining at my child’s birthday party’ and you see an attached image of a child standing miserably in the rain, you can direct this to be classified as a rain image and it’s pretty likely to be rain,” Jack explains. “On the other hand, if you have a tweet saying ‘I’m making it rain at the club’ and you see an attached image of people inside a club at a party, then it’s much less likely that the tweet relates to actual precipitation.”

GES DISC scientists Arif Albayrak and Dr. Bill Teng are supporting Jack and Sky’s work this summer and emphasize its importance. “Using social media to help verify precipitation data is something new,” says Albayrak. “Knowing how to classify these organic data makes them very valuable for research and has worldwide applications. The work that Jack and Sky are doing is taking us to a very interesting place.”

For Jack, his internship at GES DISC is taking him back to familiar locations. Jack previously supported observational astronomy efforts at Goddard and is one of four of this summer’s ESDIS and GES DISC interns who are returning NASA interns. ESDIS intern Mauricia Brown worked on heliophysics equations as a high school junior, and Paul Lin worked on Antarctic ice melt data. Mike Walker is participating in his fourth summer at Goddard. “I started as a high school intern working on image pre-processing for NASA’s IMAGEs for Science, Education, Experimentation and Research (IMAGESEER) database,” he says. “My second summer I was working at NASA’s Goddard Mission Service Evolution Center (GMSEC). Last summer I was working with the Joint Polar Satellite System on validation tools for NASA’s Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite (OMPS) instrument.”

Along with the interns supporting ESDIS and GES DISC work at Goddard, 12 NASA interns are spending the summer working at EOSDIS DAACs across the country. Interns are at the Alaska Satellite Facility DAAC (ASF DAAC) in Fairbanks, AK (eight interns), Oak Ridge National Laboratory DAAC (ORNL DAAC) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (two interns), and Atmospheric Science Data Center (ASDC) in Hampton, Virginia (two interns).


ESDIS Project Office intern Jack Miller.
ESDIS Project Office intern Jack Miller worked with his mentor, EOSDIS Data Visualization Lead Ryan Boller, to develop the Worldview Augmented Reality, or Worldview AR, application. NASA EOSDIS image.

All NASA interns are assigned at least one mentor to guide their work and provide support through the summer. Mentors also view summer internships as an opportunity to increase their own knowledge. Jack Miller’s mentor, EOSDIS Data Visualization Lead Ryan Boller, is enjoying the opportunity to learn about augmented reality and its potential applications to Worldview and EOSDIS data. “We’re excited to have an intern with his level of experience to show us how augmented reality can be used with our data sets,” Boller says. “Jack has led a lot of what he’s been doing because he knows the technology and we’re learning a lot from Jack through his work. This has been a good benefit for both of us.”

Dr. Justin Rice, an ESDIS systems engineer and the primary mentor for Vincent and Mike, notes that mentors should provide more than just task-specific feedback. “Outside of their summer projects, I want to help set them up to succeed in the future—whether it’s with NASA or with any other organization,” he says. “Mentors can make or break the summer experience for interns. Knowing this, I also want to do what I can to make their time here memorable, enjoyable, and fun. If we’re not having fun, then I’ve failed somewhere!”

Among the activities Dr. Rice and his fellow ESDIS mentors helped coordinate for the interns were informal lunches with ESDIS managers and the opportunity to network with ESDIS and DAAC staff. “I make sure that the interns meet other people and work to expand their network,” says Dr. Rice. “Hearing other people’s stories increases their awareness of the work being done here and helps them to learn more about different career options.”

Goddard's Office of Education also coordinates activities to enhance the intern’s summer experience. These activities include tours through Goddard laboratories, a Sciences and Exploration Directorate Science Jamboree showcasing the breadth of scientific work and research conducted at Goddard, and a wide range of talks and forums. As with previous years, one highlight for the interns is a presentation by Nobel Laureate Dr. John Mather.

As the ESDIS interns note, another highlight is simply the opportunity to work at NASA and gain valuable experience as they work on ESDIS projects. “In school, the impact is more for yourself, your own personal knowledge,” says ESDIS intern Diane Portillo. “The project that Paul [Lin] and I are working on benefits not only the agency, it also benefits a global community of users. It’s much bigger than just your own applications.”

Fellow ESDIS intern Vincent Inverso agrees. “There is no other place in the country where you can do what you do here studying science and space,” he says. “It’s an absolutely unique atmosphere and it permeates to everyone working here. This is a great place to be.”

After 10 weeks of hard work, this year’s interns are wrapping up their projects and preparing to continue their academic pursuits. If the past is any indication, it’s likely some of these interns will return as future members of the EOSDIS team and have the opportunity to serve as mentors to the next generation of ESDIS interns—a two-way exchange that will continue to benefit both EOSDIS and its worldwide data user community.

Published August 9, 2018

For more information about NASA Summer Internships and to apply for an internship, please visit the NASA Internships and Fellowships website: