What a year it’s been for NASA. It seems like each day since New Horizons waved hello-goodbye to Pluto, the space agency has provided us with new, jaw-dropping perspectives on our solar system while whetting our appetites for future missions and discoveries.
This week, as we witnessed Juno’s rendezvous with Jupiter’s orbit, Raising Nerd took the opportunity to speak with one of NASA’s newest recruits, intern Madeline Gibson, as she begins her exciting career in the sciences by way of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Madeline is a senior at the University of Alabama where she majors in chemical engineering with a dual minor in food & nutrition and mathematics. As if that didn’t keep her busy enough, she’s active in RunUA, the university’s running club and current president of UA’s Food Science Club. She is still figuring out exactly what she wants to do post-graduation in May 2017, but thanks to her hard work, there’s a big world of opportunity waiting for her. Currently, she is considering teaching science for Teach For America, pursuing a graduate degree in food science or another nutrition-and-food-related field, or possibly even going to work as a food industry engineer.
Even with all of that going on her life, she was kind enough to sit down and tell us about her journey:
RN: Has it always been your dream to work for NASA or in a science-related field?
MG: While I’ve always been fascinated by exploration of the unknown, working at NASA was not a long-held wish of mine. As a younger student, I certainly valued science—I often came home wanting to recreate a science experiment we’d performed at school and once spent months trying to build my own overhead projector. But as a college student, I never really thought of NASA first because I’m interested more in the human factor of science than in the mechanics.
Then I learned there are entire organizations within NASA dedicated to serving the space-traveling human, and that my interests and college experiences could fit very well there. Studying chemical engineering with a minor in nutrition, I’m hoping to someday work with food manufacturing in some capacity. This summer, I’m interning in NASA’s food lab, where astronaut meals are developed, tested, and produced. I’m incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to apply my interests within such an amazing and respected organization.
RN: How did your parents encourage you to pursue it?
MG: My parents have always been supportive of any path I wanted to take. From day one, they’ve placed learning and education at the forefront of my life and always humored my probing questions about the world (the telltale sign of a budding scientist!), enriched my summers by dropping me off at the library, and made it possible for me to attend camps and activities related to my nascent passions.
When the time came to choose a college major, they encouraged me to delve further into my interests in science and math by pursuing an engineering degree. They did not only because of the tremendous job opportunity the engineering field provides, but also because it could open so many doors to other paths and valuable learning experiences.
RN: How difficult was it to find and apply for the NASA position?
MG: I applied for the NASA internship through their online application portal. The process involved writing a few short essays, uploading a resume with comments, and submitting 1-2 letters of recommendation.
The process wasn’t easy, but it would’ve been much more difficult without the tremendous help provided by several of my professional and academic connections. My food science professor graciously wrote me yet another letter of recommendation. A supervisor from a former internship and a NASA food scientist I met during a presentation at my food science club also put in good words for me. While I’d never say my internship offer was not a product of my hard work, I’d also never say it was something I did alone.
What are you hoping to get out of this experience at NASA?
MG: … one thing I hope to gain more experience in this summer is unlocking the power of collaboration and networking. I’ve noticed science-minded people like me are sometimes reluctant to reach out to others and build connections. But fostering good, lasting relationships in your professional life during internships and beyond can be such a game-changer when it comes to finding and receiving opportunities. I’m realizing this more and more as my graduation approaches, and I hope to practice those skills this summer.
I also want to learn more about what NASA does and how my background can align with it. I know the basics, but I want to learn everything I can about this huge, awesome agency now that I have the chance to work with them for 10 weeks this summer. I also hope to hone my technical and research skills through my projects, which involve experiment design, data collection, and data analysis.
RN: What advice would you give other younger Nerds and their “Clueless Parents” about what they should do to find and prepare for their own dream job at NASA?
MG: Stay passionate! Don’t put your interests in a box and leave them there. Continue growing them, exploring new things, and taking opportunities to expand your horizons.
Also, make sure to meet people who share these passions with you. Friendships and mentorships can be invaluable when trying to take your interests from the hobby-zone to the job-zone! Get involved in school or community activities, and find places to volunteer in the community that align with your interests. And above all, never stop asking questions and challenging yourself—never settle.
RN: Where do you hope this job will take you?
MG: I hope my summer as a NASA intern will allow me to know how to better serve society in my chosen field. I hope I can take the research skills and interpersonal skills I learn and practice here and go on to find a good job fit for me—and, who knows, that may mean coming back here one day (*fingers crossed*)!