Episode 31: John Leichty

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Episode 31: John Leichty
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This episode is a part of the NASA
Student Opportunities podcast series.

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Show Notes

Special Guest: John Leichty, Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships participant

(0:00) Intro

(0:20) Interview with John Leichty. California Institute of Technology student John Leichty discusses his experience with NASA's Student Launch Initiative and Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships.

          Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships   →
          Student Launch Initiative   →

(6:01) The NASA Cooperative Education Project   → gives college students an opportunity to combine academic studies with on-the-job training and experience.

(7:19) End

Send your comments or questions to: educationpodcast@nasa.gov

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Deana Nunley: This is NASA Student Opportunities -- a podcast connecting high school and college students with learning opportunities inside America's space agency.

Episode 31. Sept. 19, 2007. I'm Deana Nunley.

Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships, or SURF, introduce undergraduates to research at the California Institute of Technology campus or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Under the guidance of mentors, students are involved with research and gain a realistic view of the opportunities and demands of a professional research center.

John Leichty is one of the students participating in the 10-week SURF project this summer. John is heading into his junior year at Caltech and majoring in mechanical engineering. While he was a student at Edison High School in Fresno, Calif., he participated in NASA's Student Launch Initiative, a competition where students design, build and launch their own rockets, complete with a science payload.

John, how did you become involved with the Student Launch Initiative?

John Leichty Well, it was actually through a program called TARC, the Team America Rocketry Challenge, which is a high school competition that has been around for five or six years now, I think, where a team of students builds a rocket to do some sort of specified task -- a model rocket. My team placed third nationally in my junior year of high school and that made us eligible for the Student Launch Initiative through Marshall Space Flight Center. So we submitted a proposal for that, and we ended up getting it.

Deana: Was the Student Launch Initiative your first exposure to NASA?

John: Yes, it was.

Deana: Has it impacted your college or career choices?

John: Yeah, definitely. It gave me a sense of what it's like to be a contractor with NASA, because the whole process was modeled on sort of a project contractor-type setup. We submitted a proposal. We did design reviews with engineers through videoconferences. It was the whole process -- from designing, building, testing and demonstrating. So it has given me a good idea of what it's like to be an engineer, and it's something that I think I like.

Deana: Were you already looking toward engineering as your field of study and as a career before you did Student Launch Initiative?

John: Yes, I was. I had sort of been interested in it since I was a kid playing with Lego toys. It sort of got me into engineering, and mechanical engineering, specifically.

Deana: In addition to the Student Launch Initiative, what other NASA projects have you been involved with?

John: Just the SURF summer internship here at JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory].

Deana: What attracted you to the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship?

John: I guess there's a special relationship between the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech. And so there was a seminar at Caltech about opportunities at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for summer internships, and so sort of on a whim I looked around at the JPL Web site and found some names and some projects. I just sent an e-mail, and I guess my information got passed around and my mentor picked up on it. One proposal later -- and a few months -- here I am at JPL.

Deana: What are you researching this summer?

John: The project is called an inchworm mechanism for a drilling system. It's basically a robot to drill down into underground into rock, and the whole concept is modeled on an inchworm, in that the robot is long and skinny and digs down and propagates like an inchworm would.

Deana: What's the application of the research?

John: Well, so far, for drilling through rock or through ice, it is sort of the [proof of concept] for this. So it could be used on Mars or on any other place where we think that there is rock to be drilled through.

Deana: Do you enjoy doing the research?

John: I do, yes.

Deana: Do you have a mentor that works with you closely on that?

John: Yeah. A lot of it is on my own, but there are lots of engineers around so that if I get stuck on a problem, or if I need help or need advice on something, I can go and ask.

Deana: From a student perspective, what do you see as the benefits of getting involved with NASA?

John: Well, definitely, seeing what it's like to be a real engineer. A lot of my course work is sort of the theoretical side, a lot of math and physics. It is not exactly what I would be doing in the real world working. So this is a great experience in that it shows me what it's like to work at NASA and what it's like to be an engineer, in general.

Deana: You'll find links to more information about Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships and the Student Launch Initiative in this week's show notes. Go to www.nasa.gov/podcast, and click on the NASA Student Opportunities podcast.


The NASA Cooperative Education Project gives college students an opportunity to combine academic studies with on-the-job training and experience. Students can earn money, take advantage of an excellent benefits package and complete their education while working on a NASA project. The co-op project is designed to train and develop students for the possibility of transitioning to full-time employment upon graduation. The project requires students to alternate between equal periods of work and academic study. Contact the cooperative education office at your college or university to start the application process.

For more information, go to www.nasa.gov/podcast. Click on the NASA Student Opportunities podcast, and follow the link in this week's show notes.

We want to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments about NASA learning opportunities, send an e-mail to: educationpodcast@nasa.gov

Thanks for listening.

NASA Student Opportunities is a podcast production of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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