Educator Features

Sending Students Onward and Upward
photograph of NASA intern Jesse Leaman
After earning his doctorate, Jesse Leaman will continue to pursue research into extragalactic phenomena, in cooperation with NASA.
For decades, space exploration has attracted countless men and women to scientific research. The NASA adventure continues to challenge and inspire newcomers through educational opportunities that encourage undergraduates and graduate students to try out science careers. NASA's Office of Biological and Physical Research (OBPR) offers internships and student opportunities in fundamental biology, the physical sciences, bioastronautics, and research partnerships. These internships have helped students further their education while discovering potential future careers.

Reaching for the Stars
Take Jesse Leaman, who interned at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, in the summer of 1998 and spotted his niche swirling in and out of our galaxy. Under the guidance of Dan Woodard, lead for NASA Physical Sciences Outreach and Education, Leaman broadened his knowledge of space research as he created educational Web pages for the microgravity division. But it was one intense week spent in Marshall's space sciences lab that introduced Leaman to his future career path. Leaman says he found out that astrophysics interested him the most. While the entire internship gave him "a good introduction into the workings of a big organization like NASA" - the way it conducted business and its strong emphasis on teamwork - Leaman knew he wanted to pursue the stars.

As a teen, Leaman had dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. In high school, his plan was to attend the Florida Institute of Technology and major in marine biology. Unfortunately, during his senior year, this dream ended abruptly. A tragic, unsuccessful stunt off his 15-foot high porch resulted in a broken neck and several shattered vertebrae.

Paralyzed from the shoulders down, Leaman remained strong-minded and determined. He was inspired by world-famous disabled astrophysicist Stephen Hawking to study astronomy. He enrolled in East Stroudsburg (Pennsylvania) University, conveniently located in his hometown. After three semesters, Leaman applied and was accepted as a student intern at MSFC. This was a personal challenge, Leaman says, because "the MSFC internship meant leaving the security of my home and family for the first time since my accident." However, the internship "provided a basis for many of the decisions I made afterwards in terms of feeling comfortable moving to other places with or without family support." He continued to pursue space science in the summer after his sophomore year, at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Maryland. As a student intern in the Space Physics Data Facility, Leaman analyzed data from the spacecraft Geotail.

"Astrophysics is just fascinating to me," Leaman says, "and it's just challenging enough to keep me interested." He is interested in supermassive black holes, cosmology, dark matter, dark energy, and instrument calibration.

Today, Leaman is enrolled in a doctoral program in astrophysics at the University of California at Berkeley; he continues to co-op at GSFC during the summers.