MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. – 19 Jan 11
USRP Intern Finds Hope through STEM
By: Heather L. Ogletree
What is an internship? Well first of all, an internship for the Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP) is an opportunity that places qualified undergraduates with outstanding NASA mentors in a challenging working environment to develop hands-on experience, which in turn produces a healthy sustainable workforce for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) career fields, within NASA, or the Aerospace industry.
That being said, internships are also a great way to push yourself and to find out if what you are studying is right for what you really want to do. Sometimes, things have to be learned outside the classroom or lab.
Yet, interns are only one part of the equation; mentors are the other key component in the overall experience. They provide the tools, guidance and structure which allow interns to be successful. However, sometimes mentors can be so much more than just a guide into the workforce; they go above and beyond to provide the support or wisdom that ends up making a lifetime impression.
Vincent “Vinny” Llamas of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, arrived to Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., full of self-doubt and worry. He did not think he was as qualified as other candidates because he did not have a perfect grade point average, despite having a GPA that was well above the required 3.0 for USRP.
This fall, Llamas was teamed with USRP Mentor Duane Carbon to work with the NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) facility’s hyperwall-2. For Llamas, this is when things began to change.
According to Carbon, it was Llamas’ job to “assist in the development of algorithms and software necessary to preprocess data for clustering and outlier identification.” Llamas explained, “I helped to download a huge amount of data, more than I could ever read in several thousand lifetimes if it were the size equivalent in digital books, and helped to ‘massage’ the raw information so that it could be fed into...the NAS hyperwall-2.” Once loaded, this data and hyperwall-2 enables researchers to quickly determine the significance of trends, clusters and outliers in variable that describe extremely complex observational results.
With a 23-foot-wide by 10-foot-tall liquid crystal display containing 128 screens and 245 million pixels, hyperwall-2 would be any video gamers dream. Llamas commented, “It is the ultimate monitor, and it is used by scientists to viscerally engage with their data in an almost overwhelming visual and spatial experience. Because I am completely undisciplined in my love for video games, this device was like the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey to me in terms of awesome wonder.”
While working with hyperwall-2, Llamas became challenged with time management. “I sometimes came home very late on a bicycle because I enjoyed working hands-on astrophysical data-processing code at the NAS facility a little too much,” recalled Llamas. “I was finally doing something instead of being in school and learning some abstract equation.”
However, this took away from him taking part in the other opportunities at Ames, so he had to find a balance. With encouragement from his mentor and from USRP Ames Project Coordinator Maria Lopez, he became friends with the other interns, went on tours, sang karaoke, and even became a blogger for the USRP H.U.B.
In addition to this, Llamas shared, “My mentor took time out of his schedule to sit down with me and not only teach me about stellar processes and the phenomena of the Universe, but also the culture in academics of the astrophysics field. [He] introduced me to people he felt could guide me and give advice, including colleagues and [friends], and he freely shared naturalist hobbies during off-time and took me to Bay Area state parks.”
Llamas recalled how Carbon continually told him “to work toward something that truly makes me happy, something that I want to jump out of bed every morning to.” This sentiment was mirrored by Leland Melvin, Assistant Administrator for Education, when he encouraged interns to be passionate about their work and not to be afraid to fail during a special meeting at Ames.
In the end, Llamas not only gained expansive work experience in the field of astrophysics, he also gained confidence in himself and his abilities. This experience enabled Llamas to create a strong bond with the NASA community and to form a network of lasting friendships that will hopefully someday help him in his journey through the “STEM Pipeline.”
Llamas concluded, “Duane is the best mentor any intern could ever have. I love every aspect of the NASA USRP internship. I truly cannot think of a more supportive place.”
For more information on Hyperwall-2, click here.