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The Desire to Explore
During a series of internships at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Carlotta Pham had the opportunity to be involved in the future of space exploration, from plans for possible lunar missions to studies of distant stars. Pham said her experiences gave her a desire to explore and to share her knowledge and excitement with others.

Carlotta Pham

Carlotta Pham is at JPL working on the update for the Catalog of Circumstellar Disks website. Image Credit: NASA

In which NASA student opportunity projects did you participate, and how did you get involved in them?

My father has been an engineer at JPL for 23 years; therefore, I have grown up exposed to the work that NASA undertakes. Since mathematics and science have always been my favorite subjects, my father encouraged me to apply to JPL SpaceSHIP (Summer High School Internship Program). This program allows high school students to work with JPL scientists and engineers on their projects and exposes students to careers in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field. My first two internships were through the SpaceSHIP program. My experiences as a SpaceSHIP intern motivated me to continue to be a part of NASA's work after I graduated from high school. As a result, during my third summer at JPL, I was a participant of the Space Grant program.

[Space Grant is a national network of colleges and universities working to expand opportunities for Americans to understand and participate in NASA's aeronautics and space projects. One way Space Grant achieves this goal is by funding fellowships and scholarships for students pursuing careers in STEM.]

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

During my first summer as an intern, I worked under Dr. Karen Willacy in the Astrophysics and Space Sciences department at JPL. We looked at circumstellar disk chemistry around new stars and created models to see which molecules were likely to be present in the circumstellar disks and where they were likely to be found. This project was important for understanding what elements are present when stars are formed and under what conditions certain molecules can be formed. This research gives us clues to the building blocks that are present during stellar evolution.

I also worked under Dr. Geoff Bryden. His research focus is on debris disks around stars. One reason that debris disks are of particular interest is because the presence of a debris disk is an indicator of planet formation. Therefore, as we look for other stars with planets, focusing on the stars with debris disks is a good starting point. Dr. Bryden had me analyze data to verify the existence of debris disks around a set of stars that fall under the same spectral classification as our sun.

During my second summer, I worked under Dr. Geoff Bryden and Dr. Karl Stapelfeldt to update the Catalog of Circumstellar Disks website. This website was created by Caer McCabe as a resource for astronomers and astrophysicists. The website posts scientific papers that contain information on circumstellar disks around stars. By having a catalog of papers that relate to the circumstellar disk research, it is more convenient for researchers to obtain this information without consulting the many journals that publish astronomy and astrophysics papers. My job was to update this website to contain the most current articles and to include stars that had newly discovered circumstellar disks.

I also wanted to work on a project that had a greater emphasis on educating others about the research programs that NASA has to offer. So, during my second summer, I also spent time as an intern for Nancy Leon in the Education and Outreach department at JPL. My project involved researching how the NASA Space Place, an educational website for upper elementary school students and educators, could incorporate social media to increase interaction. I researched different types of social media, the appropriateness of these forms of media for the NASA Space Place, and the possible uses of social media to reach out to the Space Place's intended audience. This project was very much in line with my goal to educate others about the research and discoveries that NASA is undertaking, as well as to spark an interest for STEM fields among younger students.

During my third summer, I explored a different element of the work being done at JPL. I interned under Dr. Yang Cheng and Andres Huertas in the Computer Vision group. My mentors created software that contributes to mission success by allowing intelligent systems to "see." Specifically, I worked with software that creates hazard assessment maps of the lunar surface. This software's algorithm analyzes a surface image of the moon and determines which craters on that surface would be considered hazardous to a lunar lander. This tool will be important for future lunar (exploration). My job as an intern was to validate that the tool my mentors created was reliable. Validation is a key component of software development because it ensures that the product is suitable for its use.

What has been the most exciting part of your research?

The most exciting part of my research has been realizing what I work on at JPL has a larger impact and being able to share that impact with other people. While working with education and outreach, I learned how important it is to be able to communicate the discoveries that are being made at JPL and NASA to both the scientific community and general public. I love giving presentations to share our exciting new knowledge because when people learn about these areas, they are very supportive of our research.

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

I am currently a second-year mechanical engineering student at the University of California, Irvine. Mathematics and science have always been my two favorite subjects; however, I love exploring other fields and the many subfields of each area because I believe everything is useful in gaining a better understanding of our world. Next year, I plan to study abroad at the Engineering Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. I am hoping that this experience will expose me to how science and engineering are taught and researched in a different culture. Once I graduate, I hope to go to graduate school. My summer experiences at JPL have motivated me to continue pursuing STEM educational opportunities and to hopefully become a full-time employee for NASA in the future.

Nancy Leon and Carlotta Pham

Carlotta Pham and her mentor, Nancy Leon, are sitting at the NASA Science display at the fall 2009 American Geophysical Union Conference. Image Credit: NASA

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

I love solving problems. Finding new and innovative ways to do things excites me. The discovery of relationships that can be described mathematically and then applied to other problems to predict outcomes is fascinating. When I think about my life in the future, I see myself applying these relationships to address problems and create solutions.

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

It is the desire to explore and learn more. NASA seeks to better understand our universe. This is an enormous undertaking, and NASA is able to do it on so many levels: through the research being conducted about environments on Earth and the atmosphere and oceans; the exploration of space traveling to other moons and planets; and studying star systems to discover how the world as we know it came to be. Yet all of this exploration could not be possible without the support of other areas such as engineering and technology advancement.

In a way, NASA explores these fields, too, by creating new materials and systems that allow us to understand our world. NASA provides an interconnectivity of these disciplines that is unlike any other environment I have been exposed to. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the interdisciplinary interactions and encouragement for learning are manifested in the many lectures and presentations that are offered at the lab. My work may be on software that detects lunar craters, but I can easily attend a presentation on new findings from Cassini missions or on the signs that indicate possible existence of life.

The possibilities for what one can learn as a student at NASA are endless. The opportunity to be in an environment with so many people who are dedicated to this spirit of education and exploration is unlike any other. Each summer that I spend as an intern at NASA infuses a greater desire for me to learn more and to become involved with the continual exploration of our universe.

Tell about the award that you received and how it will affect your future.

I received the Sister Clarice Lolich Outstanding Student Presentation Award during my second summer as an intern at JPL. This award is meaningful to me because it directly relates to my value of making science and technology accessible to everyone. I believe that regardless of whether someone has a background in a technical field, he or she is able to learn and understand the work that NASA does. Sometimes when I listen to presentations, I can become overwhelmed because although the topic interests me, it is presented at a level inaccessible to me. My goal for the presentation was to share my excitement for the project that I was working on so that each audience member would walk away with a new interest and understanding.

Receiving the Sister Clarice Lolich Outstanding Student Presentation Award has inspired me to continue sharing what I have learned as an intern. Communicating with others what I have learned as a result of my internship is equally as important as the work done in the internship itself. I have since then presented at various technical conferences including the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting in 2009 and the Southern California Conference for Undergraduate Research (SCCUR) in 2010. In the future, I will continue to use presentations as a tool for sharing with others what I have learned.

What are your future career plans?

As of now, I do not have a specific career plan and am open to where my educational path takes me. However, I do know that I wish to work as an engineer to improve our world. I also know that through my career I want to continue to reach out to others and inspire them through what I have learned.

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

I would advise other students who are interested in becoming involved with NASA to definitely pursue this interest. NASA provides a unique learning experience that is unlike learning in the classroom. In addition to gaining awareness for the environment that NASA has to offer, you will be surrounded by other people who share similar interests to you.

I would also advise continuing to pursue their education in STEM fields. Strive for excellence in the tools science uses: mathematics and computer programming. Also, use other programs that are related to STEM fields as stepping stones and educational experiences in order to be successful at a place like NASA. When I was in high school, I spent a summer attending the California State Summer School of Mathematics and Science (COSMOS) and later I was a member of my high school’s robotics club to compete in robotics competitions. These prior experiences helped me gain exposure to different elements of STEM and allowed me to grow as an intern at NASA.

On the Web:
› JPL SpaceSHIP   →
› National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program
› NASA Education
› NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
› NASA Education Projects
› Sister Clarice Lolich -- A Sister's Passion for Science Education   →
› NASA Space Place   →

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services