Cal State Long Beach Students Set Their Sights on the Stars with NASA Internships

When opportunities to study astronomy and physics with NASA experts came their way, three California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) physics students jumped at the chance.

Master’s student Sam Koshy and undergraduates Jill Pestana and Stephanie Sodergren served in NASA internships with the goal of expanding physics knowledge both in the scientific arena as well as for the public.

Koshy, a resident of Cypress, Calif., completed the second year of a NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP) fellowship and is the only GSRP fellow selected from a non-doctoral university to work at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He earned his bachelor’s degree in astrophysics at UCLA and came to CSULB to earn his master of science after realizing that he needed to continue his education as well as financially support his parents.

After beginning his master’s in 2010, “I started working as a physics teacher on an emergency credential in the Watts neighborhood at Locke High School. Part of the reason I chose Locke was that year it was being taken over by Green Dot,” as a charter school, he said. “The whole social justice aspect drives me. I believe that education is the path to that.”

However, Koshy needed a science credential to continue teaching, so he put his master’s on hiatus to enroll in CSULB’s science education program. “But at least I got to use my summers, so I figured that it’s a great time to get a full-time summer research position, so I started applying to various positions,” he said.

Through the NASA website, he found the California State University Science Teacher And Researcher Program, a nine-week program for prospective science teachers. Moreover, “Through that application, JPL’s education office saw my resume and my background and saw that I was a good fit for a Graduate Student Researchers Program fellowship,” valued at $30,000 per year. “The JPL education office approached me and said, ‘We know you applied for the summer internship, but in addition to that, would you be interested in applying for the fellowship?’”

“From that e-mail, I decided that $30,000 was enough for me to go back being a full-time student, so the first thing I had to do was see if there was a faculty member in the CSULB Physics Department who would be willing to take me as a student. Then second, we had to go through the JPL website for opportunities and see if one of their scientists’ research areas coincided with the faculty here. I have two advisors—Dr. Prashanth Jaikumar is my advisor here and Dr. Michele Vallisneri is my technical advisor at JPL.”

Koshy is studying compact binary stars that are orbiting a common center of mass—in particular, where one of the two stars is considered by astronomers to be hypothetical. “One is considered a quark star and the other would be considered a neutron star or a black hole. As these two interact tidally, what kind of gravitational wave signatures would they put out and can these gravitational wave signatures be detected by present and upcoming detectors?” he explained.

Quarks are one of the fundamental particles that make up matter, but a quark star is so exotic that it’s never actually been observed. “A neutron star is the remnant of a supernova. Theoretically, right now, some of the neutron stars that have been observed could be quark stars, so we could be mislabeling them because we can’t get accurate mass radius measurements in order to be able to differentiate them well enough,” he said.

As part of his GSRP fellowship, Koshy worked on NASA’s proposed space-based satellite system called the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) in cooperation with the European Space Agency, but last year, NASA ended the current LISA partnership because of budget cuts. However, the National Science Foundation is continuing gravitation wave research with a ground-based system.

Koshy hopes to land a position with an aerospace firm. “As a physics student, one of the things we have going for us is that we’re considered highly trainable,” he said. “We already have a mind that’s geared toward problem solving so one of the strengths we bring to the table is that even if it’s not an area of expertise, we can pretty much pick up things quickly and become an expert in that field in a relatively short amount of time.” And, because of his family obligations, he can’t undertake a Ph.D. program right now, so he’s completing his science teaching credential.

Meanwhile, senior Jill Pestana and sophomore Stephanie Sodergren spent 10 weeks last summer working together on a NASA internship at the Dryden Flight Research Center in Palmdale.

Pestana came to CSULB from Tehachapi High School to study music, but changed her major to physics with a music minor. Her interest in science derives from her parents. Her father is a NASA research pilot and her mother is a biologist.

For her internship, “I chose SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) because I was interested in astronomy and astrophysics, and they also had an element of education and public outreach which I mentioned in my application. Stephanie applied, too, with an interest in education and public outreach, and that’s how we became interns.” SOFIA is an advanced telescope carried aboard a Boeing 747 aircraft. To learn more about their SOFIA experience, visit www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/SOFIA/jill_pestana.html.

Sodergren is a CSULB President’s Scholar who did two NASA internships while attending Quartz Hill High School in the Antelope Valley. “I’ve always had an interest in aerospace and astronomy, and SOFIA is a telescope and a plane all in one, so of course I was interested in it. I applied on the NASA website at the same place as Jill and I was really interested in education and outreach because SOFIA flies teachers onboard and both my parents are teachers,” she said. “This application is for undergraduates and graduates from all over the country and the two girls that were chosen to work with the program chief engineer were physics majors from Cal State Long Beach. The other interns came from Virginia Tech, Cornell and UC Santa Cruz.”

Their enthusiasm and skills paid off, Pestana said. “While we were in our internship, we presented in front of the SOFIA department head of education and outreach and 15 minutes into our presentation he asked, ‘Can I hire you?’ and we said, ‘OK, sure.’ Ever since we ended that internship, we’ve been working by teleconferencing with the web development team for education and public outreach that works at NASA Ames Research Center.”

“We came up with a whole new design for a website for SOFIA that’s interactive and kids can get interested in science,” Sodergren added. “One component that we started working on was developing video tours. It’s almost like a YouTube series of Jill and I touring things on the aircraft and talking about some of the science done onboard. We’re working on our first draft which it the introductory video, and we plan on making eight videos total that would be put on the website.”

Pestana, who plans to graduate in December, is doing an additional NASA internship this summer at JPL. “I’m really interested in alternative energy research and advocacy of sustainable energy. I don’t know exactly which grad school I want to go to, but I want to study applied physics or materials science for a doctorate. So when I get my Ph.D., I want to do research and I want to advocate for good policies. While I’m doing research, I’d also like to also do the education and public outreach aspect of alternative energy, whether it’s inside NASA or outside in private industry.”

Meanwhile, Sodergren will continue to work on SOFIA outreach, but has other summer plans. “My background is in aerospace and astrophysics and astronomy; that’s what I’ve always been interested in. But, I actually received a fellowship for this summer through the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) so I’ll be at UC San Francisco this summer for 10 weeks doing a medical physics internship.” She is one of six AAPM fellows this year and will be mentored by Jean Pouliot, a professor in UCSF’s Radiation Oncology Department.

“My current plan once I graduate is to go to graduate school for medical physics,” Sodergren said. “I would have a Ph.D. in science and do either clinical work in a hospital for cancer treatment and radiation therapy or work in a university as a professor and also in a hospital.”

Fall 2012 Issue

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