Do you dream of working for NASA? Geology student Tim tells us about his summer internship

nasaBy Tim Gregory
I’m a fourth year Geology with Planetary Science student, and this summer I did a ten week internship in Texas, USA.

The internship was the LPI (Lunar and Planetary Science) Summer Internship – LPI is a research institute supported by NASA, and they study the solar system (from the moon, to meteorites, to the atmosphere of Saturn).

I found out about the internship by sitting down and googling “planetary science internships”. I found three internships using this method and by talking to my personal tutor. I wanted an internship where I would take part in research in planetary science, because I am interested in the subject and plan on doing a PhD in that area once I graduate from UoM.

The application

This involved a big application form, three letters of reference, and posting my academic transcripts. Surprisingly no interview was required! A few things which were included on the application form:

  •  Previous work experience – I had very little of this, which was one of the main reasons I wanted the internship so badly! I did however draw on relevant modules that I had taken during my degree (not forgetting to let them know when I got a first on a particular module…). I drew on previous “big projects” that I had done, such as my independent mapping project – although not directly related to planetary science, it did let me talk about project/time management, meeting deadlines, and researching a topic independently. I also talked about how my hobbies may help with a research project – for example, I’m a keen photographer so I have experience on Photoshop and ImageJ.
  •  “Biographical sketch” – Here I started by telling them what first got me interested in science. I skipped out my “educational journey” right up until my A-levels where I explained why I chose sciences and maths for my A-levels, which highlighted my on-going interest in science. Here I also spoke about my on-going interest in science communication, and talked about some of the things that I’ve done over the years (volunteering at museums, Manchester Science Festival). I also talked about my hobbies and interests outside of university life – they like to know that you’re also a “normal person” that doesn’t study 24/7. I mentioned everything from me playing in jazz bands to me being part of the hiking society at university.

It’s also worth noting that I used the Careers Service loads during the application process. They checked over about four different drafts of my application form, giving feedback and corrections each time. It was only when they gave the thumbs up that I submitted my application form. They were brilliant and I’d recommend them to anybody.

The internship

I worked at the Johnson Space Centre (NASA) under the wing of a planetary scientist called Mike Zolensky.

I did a cosmochemistry project on meteorites (CM chondrites), and used analytical equipment like a scanning electron microscope and an electron microprobe to study them in great detail. I’d never used these pieces of kit before so gaining experience on them was really valuable.

The project included writing a three page abstract on my research, and doing a seminar at a conference in the last week of the internship. I also went on tours around all the high-profile labs in the Space Centre (for example the Apollo samples lab and the Stardust Lab) and attended lots of seminars by prominent NASA scientists.

It was a great great opportunity to learn lots about lots of different areas of planetary science, and network with scientists in the field. It was also great to see America for the first time ever! Myself and the eleven other interns went on lots of weekend trips – New Orleans, Austin and the Grand Canyon to name but a few.
LPI covered all my travel and accommodation costs, and I received a stipend while I was there which more than covered the cost of food and fun activities.
Not only was it really really fun summer where I did lots of cool things and met a lot of amazing people, but it also gave me a better idea of what I want to do when I graduate. I had previously toyed with the idea of being a research scientist at a university, but I didn’t really know what research was like on a day-to-day basis. Doing research for ten weeks, working 09:00-17:00 every day, really gave me an insight into what being a research scientist is like. It absolutely confirmed that that’s what I want to do when I’m older.

My next step is to go on to do a PhD in cosmochemistry. My internship this summer has given me lots to talk about in my PhD applications, experience in using analytical instruments, and a good idea of exactly which area of research I’d like to go into once I graduate.

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