Mentor: 1. A wise advisor. 2. A teacher or coach. [Webster’s New World Dictionary]
Justin Rice has fond memories of the two NASA mentors he worked with in 2004 and 2005 during his summer internships at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The first gentleman was very nice and encouraging; he was extremely supportive and always told the tallest of tales—he still tells them,” Rice recalls. “My second mentor was just a few years older than me, but the dude was just so brilliant. He was very sharp and passionate about mentoring. In many ways, both of these gentlemen are still my mentors.”
It has been more than 15 years since Justin Rice, a sophomore at Jackson State University in Jackson, MS, took his first airplane ride to Washington, D.C., to work as a NASA summer intern. Today, Dr. Justin Rice is a systems engineer with NASA’s Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) Project and a co-mentor to his own group of summer interns: five young men and women from across the country who were selected into the highly-competitive NASA Internship Program.
These interns—Sara Lytle, Junho Kim-Lee, Summerlyn Turner, Catherine (Kate) Hobart, and Alyssa Kaewwilai—come from different schools, different academic majors, and different backgrounds, but all are working together over an intense 10 weeks to move critical ESDIS projects forward. The end result of this crucible of accomplishment will be better services and products for the worldwide users of NASA Earth observing data. “Our interns make a huge contribution to ESDIS Project [operations],” says Rice. “I want to be sure they know how significant their work is to the Project.”
Sara Lytle, a master’s degree candidate in environmental engineering at Columbia University in New York City is working with Junho Kim-Lee, a sophomore computer science major at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, to replicate the results of a study on canopy flux using a software package called Pangeo. After they finish replicating the results, they will optimize the data to see if the data can run more effectively in the cloud. Along with Justin Rice, they also are being mentored by ESDIS Project system architect Chris Lynnes. “All of the computer science I’ve done in the past was with the goal of doing research for Earth science,” says Sara. “This is the first time I’m working with computer science for the sake of computer science. I definitely don’t do work like this in my academic environment!”
Meanwhile, Summerlyn Turner, a recent bachelor’s degree graduate in geography from DePaul University in Chicago, is using a different software package to replicate the results from the same research on which Sara and Junho are working. Summerlyn’s mentors include Justin Rice and ESDIS Project science processing systems manager John Moses. “I’m using a tool called PODPAC,” she explains. “Right now, I’m trying to figure out PODPAC, what it is, what it can do, and how I can use it with these data. I was using ArcGIS at DePaul, so this is a little different.”
Two other interns also are supporting the ESDIS Project Office under the guidance of their ESDIS Project co-mentors Valerie Dixon and Chris Lynnes. Catherine (Kate) Hobart will be starting her master’s degree in geology at Baylor University in Waco, TX, this fall. She is working with Alyssa Kaewwilai, a rising senior at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, PA, to test data in NASA’s Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) collection with a variety of analysis tools. “We’re seeing what tools work with what data,” explains Kate. “We’ll then do some scripting to make these tools available with the specific collection they work best with. This way, someone can easily know which tool or tools will work best with which data collection.”
Their mentor, Valerie, oversees EOSDIS metadata and data discovery, and stresses the value of the work being done by Kate and Alyssa. “There are gobs of tools that can work with data, and we are making the assumption that not all data users know what tools are out there or what tools are the best to use for visualizing and analyzing specific data collections,” she says. “Thanks greatly to the work of Alyssa and Kate, you’ll be able to use Earthdata Search to look for a collection and at the same time see if there are associated tools for using or working with the data in that collection. Plus, there will be links to take you to these tools. The work that Alyssa and Kate are doing will be our poster child for showing how cool our functionality is.”
Valerie observes that this work is a true team effort. “I view my role as making sure they have the support and contacts they need to accomplish the task Chris [Lynnes] and I set out, and I make sure they have the training and the contacts they need,” she says. “Alyssa and Kate are such self-starters and have great ideas and suggestions, so we’re all working together to move this project forward.”
NASA’s Internship Program brings together talented college and graduate school students (along with recent graduates) to work on projects at NASA centers and facilities across the nation. Some NASA centers, like Goddard, also provide internship opportunities for qualified high school students. Internships are available throughout the year, with summer internships lasting a minimum of 10 weeks and fall and spring internships lasting a minimum of 16 weeks. Detailed information and an electronic application can be found on the NASA Internships and Fellowships website: https://intern.nasa.gov.
Along with the work being done by the five ESDIS Project Office interns, another five Goddard interns are working on tasks at NASA’s Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center (GES DISC), which is the EOSDIS Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC) responsible for NASA data related to atmospheric composition, atmospheric dynamics, global precipitation, and solar irradiance.
Outside of Goddard, more than 30 additional interns are supporting tasks at EOSDIS DAACs across the country this summer [see table below].
Of course, the NASA intern experience is more than spending 40 hours a week working on assigned tasks. At Goddard, the Office of Education coordinates numerous activities to enhance the intern’s summer experience. Laboratory tours, software engineering seminars, coding boot camps, a Sciences and Exploration Directorate Science Jamboree showcasing the breadth of scientific work and research conducted at Goddard, a movie festival, and a wide range of talks and forums are some of the activities that fill up a Goddard intern’s day.
ESDIS staff also coordinate activities for the interns, and include interns in planning and operations meetings, lunches, and other events. “It’s important for them to interact with everyone on the ESDIS team,” says their mentor Justin Rice. “We bring them into meetings so they can become familiar with all of the team members, see what we do, and observe how we strategize to accomplish large tasks. We let them get a feel for who’s who and who is responsible for different areas and how we interact.”
For the ESDIS interns, one result of their work together has been the creation of a team of colleagues who end up mentoring each other. “I think my experience this summer in the internship is giving me great experience in working collaboratively,” says Junho. “I’m working closely with Sara on this project; I mean, she’s a master’s student and has a lot of experience and she’s been a very good mentor to me. I’m sure in my classes at Cornell I won’t have the chance to have a partner with the experience as Sara.”
ESDIS intern Summerlyn appreciates the benefits of being part of a diverse team. “Coming from Chicago and being in a very close-knit group at DePaul [University], it’s nice to work with people with different backgrounds and skill sets,” she says. “I can bounce ideas off Junho and Sara and [our mentor] Justin and everyone else here. The exposure to different things has been great.”
Mentor’s, too, are learning from their interns. “When you have interns that have technical expertise, it brings you back to the world you aren’t directly connected to anymore,” says Justin. “Interns let you test the systems that you’re managing. You get to see all the problems or sticking points from a technical perspective rather than hearing about these issues third-hand.”
Intern mentor Valerie Dixon agrees. “We have some blind spots in our systems that we depend on our users and our interns bringing to our attention,” she says. “Having Alyssa and Kate here to use our systems and directly share their experiences, good and bad, lets us know where we need to make improvements.”
As the summer internships come to an end, this most recent class of ESDIS interns is preparing to take their new knowledge and experience back to their college campuses, into additional internships, or into the work world. For the interns, the experience of working at NASA has made a lasting impact, as have their mentors.
“As interns, we receive more than mentorship and guidance from our mentors—we also build lasting friendships with them,” says Alyssa. “Valerie and Chris create a very positive, supportive atmosphere that makes work both enjoyable and productive, and I feel I can seek professional advice and address any concerns with them. Through critical, adaptive thinking and collaboration with my team we are always able to resolve any issues. I feel immensely grateful to have the incredible opportunity to be a NASA intern!”
“This is something I’ve wanted to do forever,” says Alyssa’s intern partner Kate. “I love working at NASA and in the NASA environment; everyone works hard and takes their job seriously. They carry on NASA’s extraordinary legacy every day.”
A great internship begins with having a good mentor, and a good mentor can be the start of a great career. "It takes a team, much like a village, to really ensure that the interns have the best experience possible," says Justin Rice. "These interns are much further along than I was at their age. Their respective schools do a great job of exposing them to state-of-the-art software tools and techniques, so I learn a lot from them as well. Let's face it, your workload does not decrease if you have interns and are a mentor. All of us who are mentors are more than happy to do this because this is something we believe in."