Episode 5: Adam Brinckerhoff

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Episode 5: Adam Brinckerhoff
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This episode is a part of the NASA
Student Opportunities podcast series.

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Show Notes

Special Guest: Adam Brinckerhoff, NASA intern

(0:00) Intro

(0:21) Applications are being accepted for the Achieving Competence in Computing, Engineering and Space Science, or ACCESS, internship project.
       ACCESS Applications   →

(1:02) Interview with Adam Brinckerhoff. University of Michigan aerospace engineering major Adam Brinckerhoff shares his impressions of being a student member of a NASA team.
       Space Grant   →
       NASA Research and Development Opportunities for Students

(10:23) 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 5. March 14, 2007. I'm Deana Nunley. Thanks for joining us.

NASA is accepting internship applications for ACCESS -- which stands for Achieving Competence in Computing, Engineering and Space Science. ACCESS is a 10-week internship project at NASA centers. It's designed for undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities who have strong backgrounds in science and a desire to pursue technical careers. ACCESS interns will work with scientists and engineers in an area compatible with their skills and interests. ACCESS internships will be located at several NASA centers across the country. In addition to offering competitive salary stipends, there is a provision for assistive technology and other reasonable worksite accommodations to help students be fully productive members of the technology team. Limited travel funds and recommendations for finding accessible housing and transportation will be offered. Applications are currently being accepted, and placements will be announced by April 30, 2007.

For more information about ACCESS internships, go to www.nasa.gov/podcast, click on the NASA Student Opportunities podcast, and check out the show notes for this week's episode.

[Music -- Adam Brinckerhoff playing piano]

Adam Brinckerhoff is an accomplished pianist. He began playing piano when he was four years old, wrote his first composition at the age of nine, and plays live shows in and around Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Adam is a senior majoring in aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. After researching programs across the country looking for just the right internship, he applied to the National Space Grant Program through the Michigan Space Grant Consortium and landed a summer position with NASA last year. He split his time between work on solar sails and guidance, navigation and control for the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle -- or CLV, which is one of NASA's future launch vehicles for returning to the moon and traveling to Mars and beyond. I talked with Adam near the end of the summer and asked him to share his perceptions of NASA and give us a snapshot of what it's like to be a student member of a NASA team.

Adam Brinckerhoff: I have been amazed, in general, at how much of the work that I have done that is clearly going to affect something. I mean, it is a little bit intimidating to think that I am only an undergraduate student and that I am actually doing this type of work. That's a little scary. But I am glad to know that there are many other people that have been doing this for a long time that are going to check all of my work again and again before it actually flies. At the same time, it is really exciting. I mean, you hear stereotypes about engineering internships that are filing, or are working with numbers on spreadsheets all the time, and I can honestly say and I know this is cliché, but I can honestly say that I am doing really interesting work, and that I am doing things that are clearly going to affect the missions as they go from here. So not only have I been doing work here this summer, but I also have the opportunity to do some research that is actually going to end up being published in a couple of different conference papers. So I am looking into getting some travel money from the Space Grant back in Michigan, to go to those conferences and maybe co-present some of those papers.

Deana: Once you were inside NASA, was it what you had expected?

Adam: I did not really know what to expect. I mean, you have the knowledge about NASA and NASA's reputation about being the most elite and the best organization in terms of aerospace engineering in the world, frankly, and so it was strange, because it had this really big, sort of intimidating reputation coming in. I was ready to come and find out what it was like and to jump into the group, but at the same time, I did not really have a certain set of expectations, so I could not really be surprised. I mean, you think of crazy ideas of what it could be like, or what it will be like, but I was actually impressed by the fact that it was very down-to-earth. Everyone here does their work, gets along for the most part, and it's not this place where things are really on edge and everyone expects everyone to be perfect. Everyone is normal, and I guess I wouldn't expect any otherwise, but I guess you don't believe it until you see it first-hand. So it is nice to know that these people are just regular engineers like everyone else. I mean, they are doing very, very amazing, cool, different things every day. But at the same time, the work environment is very relaxed, everyone is very friendly and open, and so it's nice to see that in that way it was very normal and fun.

Deana: Have you enjoyed getting to know people at NASA?

Adam: It was fun to not only work with the supervisors that I worked with directly, but eventually, after they showed me the ropes, I would work directly with other colleagues that were working on the same projects, and I did not have to go through my mentors or my supervisors anymore, and so I really felt like just another employee working at the base. So that was a lot of fun, to get e-mails or to get phone calls, and just to go directly to meetings or private sessions with people, trying to figure out problems and getting solutions. I had information that I was trying to get from people. They had information from me that they wanted to get, and work that they wanted me to do directly for them. So I really felt like a part of the team.

Deana: Did the interns work together?

Adam: We did a little bit. Some of the interns worked as pairs. A couple of them were working in the same office doing the same projects. I did not as much, although I had a couple of the other interns in my building, and on my floor, and near me in my cubicle space. So I interacted with them a lot during the day. If we had questions about each other's projects and we needed some fresh eyes on a couple of problems, we would do that. We would go out to lunch together every day, in cafeterias nearby at the base. So I was not directly working with them on my specific projects. I was just working with my supervisors and other older professional colleagues, but I did have a lot of other interaction with the other interns, which was really fun.

Deana: Have you gained new insight on how to apply what you learn in school?

Adam: A lot of the theory, and a lot of the specific equations that you learn, you are not going to use directly. I have used maybe one or two equations from some of my aerospace or mechanical or physics classes from school. But really, what it is, is it is taking that knowledge and then applying it to the specific application or mission that you are working on. So I took this equation, for instance, for a CLV task, and I expanded on it and used it in a specific way that was directly related to what we were trying to do with the mission. So I would stress that it is important to learn the equations and learn the material for your courses, but it is also really, really important to have good computer skills, to have good teamwork skills, and to be able to problem solve and adapt. It is hard to practice that, other than just working at these internships. I think that that is one of the reasons that these programs are so invaluable to students. It not only gives you a good idea of what it would be like to work at those different places, wherever it may be, but it also just gives you experience and practice working, and you can decide, is this really for you, do you think that you would succeed well? It is a really good indication, as high as your GPA may be, of what it would really be like to work in that atmosphere, and what it would really be like to succeed in that atmosphere, in that environment. So it is important to have those teamwork skills and the computer skill and knowledge, because that just gives you a lot of flexibility and you can apply your abilities to different tasks, whether it be aerospace or mechanical or chemical, you can just sort of go wherever and do whatever, as long as you have the knowledge in place, but also the ability to extend yourself in a number of different ways.

Deana: What are some of the similarities and differences you have noticed with your school and internship activity?

Adam: Comparison-wise, school is a lot of deadlines. I mean, there are deadlines at work, but it is a lot more structured, in terms of, you have this homework assignment that is due on this day, and this test on this day, and you need to prepare likewise and accordingly. And it is a lot more theoretical. I mean they do, I guess, a good job in the engineering programs all over the country at trying to imitate what your work experience would be like. So they give you example problems to work that are related to your industry -- in my case, aerospace. My professors at Michigan will give me projects to work on that are supposed to be very similar to actual projects that NASA or Lockheed or Boeing would work on. So they give that to you, and it is an example problem, it is completely fictional and made up, but it gives you a chance to work through a problem similar to what you would do at work. But at the same time, you are still learning a lot of the theory, a lot of the equations about the subject that you are learning, whether it be structures or controls or aerodynamics, or whatever the situation may be, mathematics, calculus, physics, in your early undergraduate years. So I would say the major difference, to me, is that as hard as they try at school to pretend like you are working, nothing can really compare to actually working and doing it. And as much as you pretend to be working on an actual mission, there is nothing quite like working on something like the CLV or solar sails, and doing the work, and knowing that this is actually real, this is actually going to go up in space, hopefully.

Deana: Do you expect this to impact your career?

Adam: Well, I hope it affects me a lot. I mean, it already has in terms of my view of NASA, my experience in terms of the work that I did; and I know that that will help me personally in terms of my experiences and what I want to pursue in the future. But I also hope and assume and think that it will help me a lot in terms of my professional career. Having that experience is just really good on my resume, in terms of working at NASA and having, specifically, the experience that I had, with the interests that I have, going into grad school or going into a professional career. I got incredibly lucky and ended up working in the department here at Marshall that I absolutely am interested in, in terms of actual type of work -- guidance, navigation, and control of spacecraft -- and the more that I spent time here and talked to people about what they do in different parts of the center, and what the research is going on here, I found out more and more that I really ended up exactly where I wanted to be. So that has been really exciting, to get to know that work a little bit more, and to become more interested in it, and then also to have that experience. In my opinion it is unrivaled in terms of my career, whether it is graduate school and having work experience that will lead to that, and then maybe coming back to NASA, or coming out of my bachelor's degree and trying to pursue fulltime work, and having that as some very valuable work experience that would hopefully get me positions either back here at Marshall, other NASA centers, or maybe other places in the aerospace industry.

Deana: The Space Grant Program is a national network of colleges and universities working to expand opportunities for Americans to participate in NASA's space and aeronautics programs. It includes 52 consortia that fund fellowships and scholarships for students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math. For more information about Space Grant and other NASA learning opportunities, go to www.nasa.gov/podcast, click on the NASA Student Opportunities podcast, and follow the links in this week's show notes.

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

Thanks for joining us today.

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

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