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Juan Carlos Lopez, MUST Participant
Lopez with a concept for a rover vehicle

During his internship, Juan Carlos Lopez was involved in the design of future space vehicles. Image Credit: Juan Carlos Lopez

In which NASA student opportunity project did you participate, and how did you get involved in it?

I had the opportunity of working at the Johnson Space Center this summer thanks to my involvement in the NASA MUST project. MUST stands for Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology. The project selects a group of (approximately) 100 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students from all different universities and colleges in the nation. Every year (students) compete to be part of this selected group of people. Besides participation in a summer internship at any NASA center, the MUST project provides a one-year competitive scholarship, and involvement in the MUST Professional and Academic Support System (PASS), which provides tutoring, mentoring and access to various professional development activities throughout the year.

During my first semester of college, I found out about the NASA MUST project, thanks to one of my professors. She thought I had really good chances of being selected, due to my extracurricular involvement and my GPA, so she recommended me to apply. I was notified I was selected to be part of MUST by the end of my first year of college. This, without a doubt, has been one of the most gratifying experiences in my life.

Explain the research you conducted through your NASA involvement and why this topic is important.

My project involved supporting the random vibration environment predictions of the Orion crew capsule. Orion, which (could be) part of NASA's next generation of spacecraft, will be exposed to high levels of acoustic pressure during liftoff and various stages of flight. The sound transmitted from the outer structure to the interior of the vehicle (could) lead to severe consequences and possible failure of crucial vehicle components and systems. This study strives to address the random vibration environment issue by performing vibro-acoustic tests in three Orion flight-like panels. The results of these vibro-acoustics tests will be used to calibrate the existing computer-based random vibration environment models. This will reduce uncertainties and improve confidence in the predicted environment models in order to ensure the correct functioning of the capsuleā€™s internal systems and components. In addition, data will be used to create a vibro-acoustic database that will correlate models of future space vehicles created by NASA.

What has been the most exciting part of your research?

Being part of NASA is truly an exciting experience itself. I was able to contribute in the design and development of the Orion capsule and got to learn about its missions. I was able to contribute to this program, and that was a really gratifying experience. Also, I had the opportunity of meeting a lot of wonderful people from whom I learned a lot of different skills. I had the opportunity of meeting Gene Kranz, the flight director of the Apollo missions; visited Mission Operations and mock-up facilities; met Robonaut, etc. Overall, I learned about the history and ideals of NASA and contributed to one of its missions, so doing this was an exciting experience as a whole.

What is your educational background, and what are your future educational plans?

I am currently a third-year mechanical engineering student at the University of Texas at El Paso. As a student at UTEP, I have managed myself to keep a good GPA, work part-time and participate in a variety of extracurricular activities. During my last two years, I have worked as a peer leader for the UTEP Entering Student Program, providing orientation and assistance to upcoming engineering students. I have also worked as a peer leader for the Academic Center for Engineers and Scientists, providing tutoring in a variety of engineering, math and science courses. I served as president of Alpha Lambda Delta honor society during my second year, as well as member of several other student organizations. I will get my bachelor's in the spring of 2011. One of my plans is to attend graduate school and get a master's degree either in mechanical engineering or material science, or both.

What inspired you to choose the education/career field you did?

My family was one of my first inspirations to become an engineer. I was born in the U.S. but raised in a small city in northern Mexico. It was there where I spent the first 16 years of my life and where, since an early age, I learned about the ideals and meaning of NASA. When I was a kid, my grandfather used to tell me a story about three men who went to the moon. He recalled watching Neil Armstrong setting the first footprints on lunar soil, live on his neighbors' television. He used to tell me this, and other stories, with great pride and joy. He was truly passionate about science and space exploration, and although he was not an American, he truly embraced NASA's achievements as his own. This was one of my first inspirations to become an engineer, to be part of history, and be part of the agency who will give me the opportunity to do so. As I was growing up, my professors always encouraged me to pursue a career in science or math, as they found out I was good in dealing with formulas and numbers. I finally decided to go for engineering, as it allows me to learn a variety of math and science subjects, and apply them in the creation of new technological innovations.

Lopez with a Saturn V rocket

Lopez had the opportunity to hear Apollo flight director Gene Kranz speak and to visit historic sites. Image Credit: Juan Carlos Lopez

What do you think will be the most important things you'll take away from your involvement with NASA?

During my internship I learned a variety of technical skills. I was introduced to new concepts on vibration, acoustics and structural dynamics, as well as new engineering software. I learned and applied this knowledge by participating in hand-on experiences, like an experimental modal analysis or microphone calibration. I am sure this new set of skills will be the foundations for new opportunities in my future and will provide competitiveness in the workforce.

However, I believe the most valuable lessons from this internship were those who allowed me to grow as an individual. As a NASA intern, I learned about the value of leadership, teamwork and effective communication. This set of skills, I believe, will be extremely important in my future and are the basic foundations on the success of all kinds of life projects.

How do you think your NASA involvement will affect your future?

During my internship, I was nominated to be part of the NASA Student Ambassador Program. Being an ambassador will give me the opportunity to accomplish one of my goals in life, which is to motivate other students, especially underrepresented minorities, to pursue careers in STEM. I have always worked in activities and projects which intend to do this, as this is something I truly enjoy; however, I believe having NASA's support as an ambassador will allow me to reach a broader group of students and make a bigger difference in my community.

What are your future career plans?

I would like to finish my undergraduate education and hopefully get involved in a graduate school program in order to get my master's. I would like to keep involved in NASA-related activities throughout my junior year, hopefully as a NASA Student Ambassador, and make a difference in my local community. I would like to finish my bachelor's and hopefully get involved in a master's program.

What advice would you have for other students who are interested in becoming involved with, or working for, NASA?

The three things I always advise my peers are: to keep a high GPA, participate in extracurricular activities, and get involved in professional experiences such as internships and co-ops.

A GPA is not necessarily a reflection on how smart you are but surely shows the level of responsibility and commitment you have towards your academics. This is truly important if you want to work for NASA. Also, extracurricular activities let you enhance and apply your interpersonal skills (leadership, communication, teamwork, etc.), which are essentially important in the workforce, especially in NASA. A GPA will open the doors for you to get an interview or be considered for any position, but participation in a variety of extracurricular activities will ensure that position. Employers look for well-rounded individuals, people who have a good technical knowledge (GPA) but also people who know how to communicate their ideas clearly and effectively, work with others, and take initiative (extracurricular activities will give you those skills). Once you do what I've previously described, then you should apply to internships and co-ops in order to gain some professional experience.

These are the three keys, I believe, to be successful in life after graduation and get involved in NASA.

Related Resources:
›  NASA Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology
›  NASA's Johnson Space Center
›  NASA Education
›  NASA Student Programs

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services