Guest blogger Connie Lu is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago who spent her summer with NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program at JPL in Pasadena, California. For more information about student internships at JPL, visit http://careerlaunch.jpl.nasa.gov/.
How did you find this internship?
During winter break, all of my friends seemed to know what they were doing. They were all applying for internships in investment banking, the U.N., tech startups, and I was lying in bed, reading poetry. Not that there was anything wrong with reading poetry‚ I love poetry‚but I had no idea how I was going to find a summer job that I enjoyed. So I made a list of subjects that interested me: poetry and literature, physics, music, etc. Then I started trawling Google for relevant organizations with internships that pertained to each one. JPL was the only NASA center that I was really dreaming about interning at, but I'd already dismissed as being a little far-fetched. I submitted my resume to the general pool anyway. Months later, I got a call from JPL asking if I was still available for the summer. How could I have said no? Lessons learned: strange things happen, and you should let them. Don't limit yourself.
What got you interested in space?
Please don't laugh at this story. Both my parents are computer engineers, so there's been a computer of some sort in the house for as long as I can remember. In elementary school, we had this big desktop that I played Putt-Putt and Oregon Trail on. The screensaver (I promise this is relevant) was the one with the star field, and when I got bored during piano practice (which was often), I'd turn around and look at it and the bookcase. I'm not sure why I thought looking at them would help me escape the bench sooner, but logical reasoning develops with age, and I was young. So one day it finally occurred to me that the screensaver looked like a window progressing further into a star field. Wait, what, stars were in 3-D? So I became obsessed with the local San Jose Tech Museum and the Exploratorium, started reading more, asked my parents irritating questions. When I found out that there existed actual pictures of space, thanks to Hubble, that just really cemented it all. I hadn't realized it was so beautiful. And that was that, and now I'm irritating JPL scientists and engineers with my questions instead. I'm also a volunteer with the telescopes at the Adler in Chicago, so though space and physics didn't really pan out as a course of study or a career path, they're still in my life, and I'm happier for it.
[[IMAGE||252582_2100395831242_4895653_n.jpg||left||250||jpl summer intern connie lu|| ||0||0]]
Did you know anything about exoplanets before this job?
I knew that planets outside of our solar system existed, and I knew about all of the basic components to the science behind them‚for example, spectroscopy, gravitational lensing, accretion, etc. But I had no idea of how planets were discovered, how many had been discovered, what they were like, or that star shades existed. Speaking of which, star shades are unbelievably cool. Probably the favorite thing I've learned about in these past ten weeks. Or maybe it's that the scientists and engineers at JPL are figuring out the logistics of directly imaging exoplanets that are both extraordinarily distant and dim in comparison to their host stars. The idea that we can see photographs of exoplanets is unbelievable to me.
What's the most astounding thing you've learned during your time here? What is something poetic you've learned about the universe?
Ever? In freshman year, my physics teacher went on a brief tangent that amazed me, and still does -- that entropy is irreversible, and everything will die. I know that sounds morbid, but the finality of it all is incredibly poetic‚ and it's already been addressed in poetry. Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice" is one of his best-known: "Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice." As for what I've learned here, researching and writing about exoplanets has made me realize how incomprehensibly large the universe is. I know the scale of the universe and the Earth's relative inconsequence is also a common topic that people like to write about‚ Carl Sagan, to name a big one‚Äîbut it's for good reason. Transience and death are two of the few topics that are hard to exhaust.
At the University of Chicago, you're majoring in English and Economics. How do you stay interested in such disparate majors?
I think of it that way to stay focused: my English readings and papers as fun, or as close as academic work can come to fun, and Economics coursework and problem sets as tasks. Love and work.
How would you describe the atmosphere at JPL?
I ride the bus to work and sometimes laugh at the thought that most of the strangers I'm sitting next to or exchanging "Good morning" with are likely to be both very brilliant and among the best in their fields. The atmosphere on lab is similar. It feels like a college campus filled with adults who happen to work on space‚ complete with cafeterias. Part of the MSL team is working in the basement of the building I'm in, and one day I saw one of the lead flight engineers slide down the stair railing while carrying on a conversation. I wouldn't say that's typical, but JPL's the kind of place where that can happen and not be considered as totally irreverent or out of place.
How did you feel about the people you met?
The scientists and engineers I've talked to are some of the most patient people I've ever met. Everyone is humble to almost a ridiculous extent, and nobody has a superiority complex about their prior accomplishments. I got to meet the principal investigator on Hubble's WFPC-2 camera, one of the major scientists involved in correcting the telescope mirror's spherical aberration, and he would just go on these amazing, completely offhand tangents about that work.
How did it feel to be here during the Curiosity landing?
It was unbelievable. I'm trying not to exaggerate or be too excessively hyperbolic, but it was unbelievable. I already couldn't believe that I was going to be working at JPL for the summer, and then I got here and of course the landing -- not its success, but experiencing it -- was so much better than I'd imagined. I was with a lot of other people from JPL that night, watching the landing at the Civic Center, and when the control room confirmed a safe landing, the auditorium burst into spontaneous cheering and applause and a standing ovation. The woman next to me was sobbing. That was a little unnerving, but it was sweet, and it really illustrated how inspiring the successful landing was. A few of my friends were abroad, and one brought back a newspaper from Tunisia with Curiosity's landing on its front page for me. Everyone on lab was grinning the day after MSL landed. I'm so glad that I got to witness it all. Seeing the control room where everything took place in 230/the Space Flight Operations Facility was definitely a highlight of this internship as well.