At the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) they say, “Teamwork is a must, and everyone’s opinion counts.”

And that is why the disparate Merced College personalities of 19-year old French horn player Megan Phillips, 27-year old computer geek Stephen Schertz and 21-year old veteran NASA intern Angelica Walker could walk into their NASA internship projects this summer and completely ace the challenges.

That is precisely the point of the annual NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program—bringing together different types of students to see what new ideas and execution they can add to important missions.

“Every student we send comes back saying how life-changing the internships are,” said computer science Professor Kathleen Kanemoto, who is the driving force behind sending Merced College students to these NASA internships.

NCAS is under the oversight of NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project, which seeks to identify a more diverse workforce, starting with underrepresented ethnic communities and previously underutilized student populations like community college students.

This year Phillips and Schertz, after acing a five-week intensive online internship earlier during the summer, were among 187 students to earn coveted spots in the four-day NCAS virtual program from Aug. 2-6, 2021.

“I loved working with everyone,” Phillips said. “The experience felt like we were in-person even though it was virtual. Especially because we haven’t all been able to work in teams so much lately, everyone was there to help you succeed. And that’s kind of how NASA is as a whole. It was as nice introduction.”

Schertz admits he had no idea what he was getting into with NASA, but the lure of it proved too strong.

“Just saying NASA is like talking about royalty,” said Schertz, a computer science major. “They’re doing it big over there. The love and respect they all show for their work is something I’ve never experienced before.”

Perhaps the biggest challenges going into these NASA experiences is grappling with the sheer size and scope of NASA itself.

“There is definitely a bit of imposter syndrome until they get one of these internships completed,” Kanemoto said. “There is a huge amount of self-efficacy that comes with doing any sort of internship, and NASA makes theirs so meaningful. They make the students feel so important to the process. They do a good job building confidence.”

One of the best examples of how that can come to pass is with Walker, who is starting her fifth NASA internship this fall. She completed three others virtually with the chief finance office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston earlier this year. Walker now has a paid internship with the Universities Space Research Association, which harnesses university research and personnel to help address NASA mission goals. 

Walker did her initial NCAS internship in 2019 as a Merced High senior. The UC Merced business management and economics major is one of the great success stories among the Merced College alumni who have taken part in NCAS.

“[The internships] just gave me a whole bunch more confidence,” Walker said. “It is clear to me that I’m going to apply for everything I can from now on and see what happens.”

For their NCAS experiences, Phillips and Schertz worked on a lunar habitat simulation as part of the Artemis Mission, whose goal is to put people back on the moon for long-term stays. 

Phillips said the biggest challenge was navigating the different time zones to share work as a computer engineer in charge of analyzing and building the mission schedule on a daily basis.

In the future, Phillips would love to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena on the Europa Clipper Mission, which will do recon on one of Jupiter’s moons to see whether it could sustain life. The first iteration is supposed to launch in October 2024, and Phillips, who is double majoring in computer engineering and music—she plays a mean French horn—wants to be involved in subsequent trips. 

Schertz said the work his team did the day before their final presentation was due proved to him he could complete any tasks. They spent the day with every crew member working to fill out a single document.

“It was a full group effort,” said Schertz, who would eventually love to work at Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. “I realized, ‘This is what NASA is about.’ Yeah, they have all of these cool, huge tools, but they show each other such respect while working. At NASA that always gives you that extra boost, and then you find a way to complete the mission.”

Once you step through the NASA doors via an NCAS internship, you can keep exploring as part of NASA. Just keep doing the work.

“There are more opportunities coming up,” Kanemoto said. “If you participate in the Merced College computer club, you’re tied to the Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (CAHSI). Then they get connected to a lot of other groups and opportunities through that.

“There is such a need for computer scientists in the world today. Our students need to realize there are opportunities waiting for them.”

Editor’s note: Merced College has distinguished itself within the NCAS program, having sent 17 talented STEM students to over the past four years: Bryse Rochester in 2018; Alvin Collier, Angelica Walker Bryana Gudino, Erick Mercado, Michael Silva, Anthony Van Alst, Andrew Vega and Larisa Harter in 2019; and Megan Pemberton, Cody White, Ruben Nunez-Chavez Jr. and Stephen Schertz in 2020. 

Students accepted to participate in future NCAS cycles are Ray Aguilar (Fall 2021), Gerardo Felix Aguilar-Aguilera (Fall 2022), Sergio Manriquez (Fall 2023) and Luis Quiroz (Fall 2024).


 

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