Exploring a VAST Universe
From Mars to Abu Dhabi, a student opportunity at NASA's Langley Research Center opened new worlds for Erin Meekhof. After participating in the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars program, Meekhof said she not only was inspired to learn more about science and space exploration but gained the confidence to pursue her dreams.
In which NASA student opportunity did you participate, and how did you get involved?
In the spring semester of my junior year (in high school), my astronomy teacher, who had heard about the program Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars (VASTS), pulled me aside after class and handed me an e-mail printout about the program. Based on my interest in the senior-level astronomy class, he thought that the program would be a good fit for me. It was. The semester of independent online work and the Summer Academy of VASTS challenged me past the coursework of that class and ignited a passion for space travel
Explain the research you conducted through your NASA involvement and why this is significant.
During the Summer Academy of VASTS, 35 Virginia students and I did the research to create a hypothetical mission to establish a human presence on Mars. We collected data and organized systems and designed habitats and scheduled research, pulling it all together into a vast mission plan after five days of intense work. Organizing this mission really showed us the challenges inherent in a venture like sending humans to Mars, but it also gave us a sense of the importance of that kind of exploratory mission. Space is still the final frontier.
What has been the most exciting part of your research?
Working with other exceptional students and discovering how close NASA is to sending a human presence off of Earth still excites me; these are things I first experienced at VASTS through our lectures and tours at Langley.
What is your educational background, and what are your future educational plans?
I attended a public high school, Forest Park, in Woodbridge, Va. At graduation, I ranked ninth out of about 500 graduates with a 4.12 GPA. I'm currently part of the inaugural class of New York University Abu Dhabi, which means that I am studying for four years in the United Arab Emirates. This is a really unique opportunity for me, and it's extremely rigorous academically, but I love it. VASTS was an important part of my chance to get to this university; in many ways, it gave me the confidence to apply.
What do you think will be the most important thing you'll take away from your involvement with NASA?
The week of (the academy) at Langley stretched me past what I thought I could do -- it's still unbelievable to me that about 35 high schoolers put together a Mars mission without missing any key components. And now I know for sure that I can rise to any challenge: working accurately and creatively on three hours of sleep; speaking in front of dozens of high-ranking people; answering the questions of aforementioned people intelligently; teaming with my peers (and non-peers!) in a real partnership; dealing with insane deadline pressure and unexpected twists; organizing a group of people; keeping the overall goal in mind as well as paying attention to all the details of that goal; overcoming things like budget and time limitations. All these things have and will continue to serve me well in my education, career and life.
The most important thing that week taught me, though, was that I have the ability to lead -- not just manage or oversee, but lead. Admittedly, I worked with a group of people who were probably smarter and more driven than I was, which helps, but I found in myself the (previously unknown) capacity to see a vision, and get other people to believe in it too -- so much so that they wanted to push themselves to the limit to reach it. I discovered the confidence to be a leader in my role as systems manager.
That’s really what VASTS gave to me -- confidence. In my own abilities, in my capability to be flexible and to adapt, in my means to rise to the occasion, in my leadership. Without that confidence, I would have talked myself out of applying to NYU Abu Dhabi. And that would have been one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
How do you think your NASA involvement will affect your future?
It already has! I came to university with a plan to major in humanities, but as we learned more about the science program, I was reminded of the week I spent at Langley, and I decided to switch majors to something in the sciences. I dream of working on an international project to send humans to Mars -- a dream very much implanted by my experiences at VASTS.
What are your future career plans?
I'm still not sure what exactly I want to do, but somehow, some way, I want to be involved with efforts to reach outside of the Earth, exploring and colonizing space. What that will look like, I don't know yet, but we’ll get there.
What advice would you have for other students who are interested in becoming involved with or working for NASA?
Find and take the opportunities! There are so many programs for students; get in contact with someone who knows about them and find one that fits you. Don't be afraid to do something that seems challenging. Apply even if you think your chances of getting into some program are low. I didn't think that I would get into VASTS or survive the coursework, but I did, and I now know that I can do the (almost) impossible.
On the Web:
› Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars →
› NASA Langley Research Center
› Virginia Space Grant Consortium →
› NASA Education →
David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services