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NASA Launches Opportunities for Students

Emily McBryan demonstrates how the autonomous robot will function once it is placed on water.  Photo by Noemi Gonzalez.
Emily McBryan demonstrates how the autonomous robot will function once it is placed on water. Photo by Noemi Gonzalez.

Hundreds of ASU students have gone through the ASU/NASA Space Grant program since 1989, making heads throughout the country crane, and almost placing ASU at the center of the collegiate cosmos.

NASA provides grants to schools across the country, and while Arizona’s state schools were chosen in 1989, ASU is still providing a constellation of opportunities to undergraduate and graduate students, something Associate Director Tom Sharp believes is essential to finding success. The ASU/NASA Grant Program allows internees and volunteers to explore the science realm, he says, and to see if what they thought was their interest is actually what they want to go into.

“Success also requires opportunity, and it’s something that we tend to minimize a little bit as Americans, because we focus so much on, ‘anyone can do everything, anything if you have the ability to have hard work,’ and not everybody has the opportunity,” Sharp says. “So what we’re doing for the students here is providing a similar opportunity. This opportunity can lift their expectations, broaden their horizons, and open up worlds that weren’t open to them before.”

It is all about giving opportunities to students who wouldn’t usually have them. NASA and other leading organizations such as the National Science Foundation provide funding to every department from journalism to physics, offering an opportunity to immerse themselves and conduct critical research.

After receiving the ASU/NASA Grant Intern position, Eric Hinkson, electronic engineering technology senior, received the Motorola Endowed Embedded Systems Scholarship, Apple internship and the NASA Academy at Ames internship in California. Currently, he is a Department of Defense SMART Scholar while he continues to pursue his degree as an engineer.

“ [Before], my goal was to get a general degree, and get out and get a basic degree, and that was my limit, but a professor introduced me to the grant program, and I started looking into grad school [and] scholarships,” Hinkson says.

Most recently, Hinkson received an email from Brad Pailey, an administrator at Ames, indicating his interest in Hinkson’s occupational prospects.

For computer science sophomore Dominic Chen, research involves the development of an autonomous robot, including the electrical research necessary to make sure the robot is completely autonomous. 

“I work in a lab called ‘Extreme Environment and Robotics Instrumentation Lab’, and the project that I specifically work on is called MSLED, which stands for Micro Submersible Lake Exploration Device,” Chen says. “What we want to do is develop a little water submersible that we can send into some glacial lake in Antarctica, and then you get to explore the environment and get some census data.”

Laughingly, he makes it clear that this research is not a trial, and explains how Colin Ho, who is majoring in mechanical engineering and working on a concurrent degree in earth and space exploration, recently returned from Antarctica from testing out the robot.

Chen works 10 hours a week in order to develop thorough research.

“What we want to do is to send what we’re working on down into the lake, and then be able to remote control it or let the robot move on its own, autonomously,” Chen says. “It’ll let us better understand how climate change is affecting this area.”

But Chen isn't the only one who has gotten the opportunity to conduct critical research. Emily McBryan, double majoring in aerospace engineering and in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, runs the ASU robotics team and is taking it in the direction of autonomy.

“Being a part of NASA is a privilege," she says. "We represent where NASA is currently at, [where] taxes [go]: It’s going to students like me, like you.”

McBryan received an internship at NASA Facility in Houston at the Johnson Space Center and was able to work on Robonaut 2, a robot that looks like a human and assists astronauts in space. She was able to see the robot when it was launched into space last February.

“I believe that being a part of this organization really influenced that award given to me. It was a lot of fun,” she says. “You meet a lot of geeky and nerdy people. You can make any Star Trek and Star Wars reference and everyone would get it. They came up to me one day, and asked me, ‘How would you like to design something that would go up to space?’”

McBryan jumped at that opportunity and designed a simple lens. She is unsure if it actually went up into space, but what matters is that she received the opportunity to design something of her own.

Hallie Gengl, is an earth and space exploration senior working with Professor Mark Robinson on the Lunar Reconnaissance Camera.

With the Lunar Reconnaissance Camera, Gengl looks at craters that have not been studied before and views camera images sent directly from NASA. But Gengl’s experience has been more about the image she represents for other women and young girls in or not in the science realm.

“There really aren’t that many women in the sciences,” Gengl says. “As a girl, I have to prove myself and have [to] actually put higher standards that say that women can do just as much as men are doing [in a] male dominant [world. I’ve always tried to be a role model in that regard. It’s not a limitation.”

In reference to the scarcity of women working in the science world, Sharp says, “Often times, people of underrepresented groups don’t have the same vision: They don’t see themselves as being able to be in the sciences. So it’s really important for us to be able to offer these opportunities for everyone. Space Grant is one way to do it.”

Others, like mechanical engineer sophomore Erick Yanez, face unexpected challenges.

“Being a minority, especially in the ranking where I’m at, a lot of times there is added pressure to outperform what I would normally do, because I know that there’s a lot people that look, specifically because I am a minority, at me differently and don’t expect as much from me.”

Yanez wants to reconstruct the way individuals see minorities.

“I feel that if I can personally outdo their expectations and go higher then I’m not only changing their perspective on myself but also on any other minorities they might see later, and hopefully setting different paths that different minorities students can take.”

The NASA Grant Office is under the Department of Education. The application to apply for a ASU/NASA Space Grant Internship can be found at

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