Portland high schooler works with NASA; aims for career in space
Lily Segna has grown up with little rocket models around her, NASA patches, and funny NASA stories. Her mom used to work on integrating circuits for satellite chips and her grandfather was NASA's mission staff engineer for Apollo 16.
Segna, a St. Mary's Academy student from Portland, was selected out of 1,100 applicants for one of the 92 coveted spots for the Student Enhancement in Earth and Space Science (SEES) summer internship offered by NASA this year. She didn't realize she would follow in their lead until her passion for space was sparked during summer of sixth grade, while visiting the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
"I remember being absolutely fascinated with everything I saw, from sundials to pendulums simulating gravity on different planets — that's the moment I knew I wanted to go to space," Segna said.
Segna went on to participate in space camp in Huntsville, Ala. the following year and space robotics camp after that. In her freshman year of high school, she started researching NASA internships for high school students and discovered SEES. She had to wait till she was almost a junior to apply.
"I wasn't old enough to apply yet, so I had to wait a year (longest year ever, honestly)," Segna said.
After being accepted for the 2021 summer internship, it had to be virtual due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She was able to reapply for on-site positions for the summer of 2022. Interns worked remotely July 1-15 with their project mentors, then were on site July 16-30 at the main campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Housing, meals, and local transportation are all covered by the internship.
"Me and a team of five other interns were working in the Center for Space Research (CSR) at UT Austin," Segna said, reflecting on her experience. "The beginning of the internship was a lot of research, which was really interesting and gave me a better idea of what it might be like to conduct my own research projects in the future. I learned a lot about how to use different software and how to find answers to questions I didn't really know how to ask.
"We were supposed to choose three potential landing spots for our theoretical Mars rover. But Mars is relatively big, so how do you narrow the scope of an entire planet down to three small areas? We couldn't just type the question into Google, we had to research specific aspects of it (like what are landing criteria for a rover, or what kind of research would be beneficial to scientists and space exploration as a whole)."
The SEES program was started in 2016. It is for U.S. citizen high school students that are current sophomores or juniors, are at least 16, and are interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM.) The competitive and international summer internship program is held by NASA, the Texas Space Grant Consortium and the University of Texas at Austin Center for Space Research.
SEES provides students with exposure to Earth and science research. The interns work with scientists and engineers, conduct authentic research with NASA subject matter experts in their chosen area of work, and learn how to interpret NASA satellite data.
"It really does provide students that spark and the excitement about pursuing STEM degrees in college," Margaret Baguio, program manager with STEM education and outreach at the Center for Space Research stated in a video about the SEES intern program.
Interns only pay for their flight to and from Austin, but scholarships for the airfare cost are also available. After returning home, the students worked on their virtual projects and presented their research during the Virtual SEES Science Symposium in early August.
Wallace Fowler, an aerospace engineer and professor at UT Austin, said he's "inspired by the competence of the students, by the growth during the time that they are here, and by their enthusiasm for the program."
Segna said a highlight of her on-site experience was a behind-the-scenes tour of the Johnson Space Center, as well as her fellow interns in the program.
"We got to walk through Building 9, which is where they have a mock-up of the International Space Station and various projects such as Valkyrie, a humanoid robot," Segna said. "We also got a tour of the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) building, which is where my group and I got to meet the mentor we'd been working with, so that was really cool."
As she approaches her senior year, Segna plans on majoring in computer science with a focus in AI/machine learning, bioinformatics or robotics and a minor in a space-related field like astronomy, astrobiology or astrophysics. She plans on getting her master's degree and hopes to work for NASA afterward. Segna said she's most interested in programming rovers like Perseverance to have more sophisticated AI and machine learning capabilities, as well as searching for extraterrestrial life, habitability of other planets, and evolution of life on Earth.
"But the truth is, if something is related to space, I will find a way to be interested in it," Segna said.
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