GREENBELT, Md. – 11 May 11
Hawaiian Native USRP Intern Breaks the Mold
By: Heather L. Ogletree
Sheridan Ackiss interned this spring at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GFSC) in Greenbelt, Md., through the Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP). While at Goddard, the mathematics major from the Georgia Institute of Technology connected with NASA Mentor David Chuss to work on a 15-week project developing detector instrumentation for millimeter astronomy, which could possibly measure the first 10-32 seconds of the universe.
Below you will find her interview where she discusses how she ended up at NASA, what she learned, her goals, and advice to future USRP interns.
1. What city and state are you originally from?
I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii and raised in the great state of North Carolina in a small town called Murphy. I currently reside in the city of Atlanta, Georgia.
2. What do you like best about your chosen academic discipline?
I am an Applied Mathematics Major with a minor in Earth and Atmospheric Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology. My favorite part about what I study is knowing that it is located all around me. People are usually surprised when I say I am a Math major mostly because they think it is boring and I am just crunching numbers all day. On the contrary, my major goes much deeper than just crunching numbers. It’s analyzing, formulating, proving, seeing things that most people don’t get to see and then applying it to things outside of my window and beyond. With the combination of my minor, I feel that the things I am studying in school could and possibly will make an influence on not only our Earth but other planets as well.
3. What challenges do you feel you have had to overcome to accomplish this internship award?
In regard to scholastic challenges, I wasn’t serious about things soon enough. I didn’t take high school very seriously and it was tough for me to transition in to college. I was denied from many schools, multiple times. When I decided to pursue things with NASA, my grades were decent but nothing like they should have been. I applied for many scholarships, internships, anything that could get me in the door at NASA… and for the longest time, I was denied from them all. That was really hard to take in. I started to work harder and applied for the USRP. Thinking I was going to get denied again, I registered and pre-paid to study abroad in Australia and New Zealand. At the last minute, I was accepted into the USRP. Needless to say, it was an easy decision for me as to where I would spend my spring semester.
4. Did you always desire an opportunity to work for NASA?
When I was little I wanted to be an anesthesiologist for the simple fact of: they make a ton of money. It wasn’t until high school when I met a very wise man who convinced me that I shouldn’t do something purely for money… I should do something, especially something that I was going to do for the rest of my life, because it made me happy. It took me a very long time to figure out what it was that would make me want to get up and go to work in the morning and I did a lot of searching. I realized that I love learning, I love math, I love science, and I have an intense passion for things that push the boundaries of contemporary thinking. It was then that I knew I wanted to work for NASA and since then, I have put all my efforts towards reaching that goal.
5. What have you liked best about your NASA USRP internship thus far?
If I had to pick one thing in particular, it would be the people I have met. Every day I am fortunate enough to meet people that are changing the world, literally. I feel so lucky to be around these people, let alone work with them. Although everything pertaining to this internship has been a dream come true for me, I think it’s the people here that have made it the amazing experience that it has been.
6. What challenges have you faced thus far in regard to your assigned project?
I think my biggest challenge was learning the physics behind my project. In school, physics is my worst subject so when I saw the description of the project on the USRP website, I was extremely intimidated to accept the award. When I made it GSFC, I made it very clear to my mentor that physics and I did not get along. He actually wasn’t as worried as I thought he would be. I spent the first couple of weeks with my colleagues learning the physical applications of my project. And I spent hours at my desk preparing for the project by reading proposals and technical papers. It was tough few weeks, but it all worked out in the end.
7. What are your career goals after graduation?
It’s funny, really. The answer to this question changes weekly. I think I am still looking for the direct answer but for the most part, I would like to continue my schooling with a PhD of some sort. I will also most likely make efforts be a part of the GSRP. When I finish schooling, I hope to come back to continue work at NASA.
8. What are you most passionate about in regard to your project? What did you learn?
I have done many things in the microwave lab but the one I have been most passionate about has been working on my mentor’s Internal Research and Development Project: the Circular Variable-delay Polarization Modular (CVPM). The CVPM rotates the output polarization relative to the input by introducing a variable phase delay between the right and left circular polarization components of the incoming light. Most of this project had been tested before because of its relation to a device my mentor previously created but for the most part I’ve been able to be extremely hands on with this project and it has been very influential.
9. What was the most interesting thing about your project? What is the impact of your project?
The most interesting and high-impact part of this project is seeing that we have the potential to test the theory of inflation. Recent Cosmological evidence hints that the universe experienced a rapid expansion period called inflation early in its history. If this true, the universe expanded by approximately a factor of 10^30 in 10^-32 seconds. Inflation would have produced gravitational waves, polarizing the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). The CMB is the oldest light that we can measure. Previous NASA missions such as WMAP and COBE have studied it. The detectors that we are working on have the potential to measure the CMB with unprecedented precision in order to test the theory of inflation. They are also very versatile and are expected to be used in possible future NASA missions.
10. What words of advice do you have for future interns?
I think the best pieces of advice are the ones that were given to me. There have been two that I use daily: dress appropriately and be sure to network. When I was first accepted into the USRP, my grandfather told me, “If you dress like a college student, you will be treated like a college student.” GSFC is laid back but I think it is important to make a good impression by dressing for success. Networking is also something that I would really advise. By making an effort to meet people, I was presented the opportunity to work on an Undergraduate Research Project at my university. It’s a small world and you’ll never know who you could meet!