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Nolan Roth, 2019 SPS Intern, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, High Point University
It’s hard to know what you want to do for the rest of your life if you don’t know what’s out there to be done. Oh, you think, the classic unsolved problem of the student! How can it ever be approached? One of the great things about the SPS internship program is that it works to remedy that problem.
Throughout the program, participants have the opportunity to tour each of the intern placement sites, among them NASA, NIST, Capitol Hill, and the Optical Society. These tours reveal the many sides of physics—including those that tend to be out of the spotlight. Physics isn’t just about doing research—it can also involve writing, communication, education, outreach, design, and roles in the humanitarian, historical, and social arenas. Students can benefit from learning about these different outlets and from diversifying their network of research opportunities. I definitely have.
During our tour of the Capitol, we visited congressional offices, congressional hallways, congressional statues, congressional bathrooms, and the congressional food court—and we even got to meet with a congressman! The highlight of the day was the hour-long meeting with Illinois Rep. Bill Foster, the only congressperson to have a PhD in physics. The meeting with him was riveting! He spoke on his past, the moral issues of the present, and how to make a difference in the future. He gave book recommendations (one of which, Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, is my new favorite nonfiction book) and asked each of us about our summer work. It was a wonderful opportunity, and I believe we all walked out with extra knowledge on the direction of science policy.
That same week featured the NASA tour. We zigzagged across the Goddard campus, popping into buildings, walking through research labs, visiting gift shops, and, most notably, attending the Science Jamboree.
Every summer, NASA hosts this large event that’s open to the public (public-ish—you still need badges to get on campus). Teams from many of NASA’s large projects set up booths during the event, using demonstrations or models to teach other people about what they do. It was a hotbed of science research, and I loved it. I wended my way through crowds of curious people, gathering many pounds’ worth of free stickers, bags, posters, and fliers. I introduced myself to various project leads, exchanged cards, and learned about some amazing science that I would love to explore, including TEMPO’s space communications network project and the Discover supercomputer in the NASA Center for Climate Simulation.
It’s still hard to know what I want to do for the rest of my life, but now I know a bit more about what’s out there. The classic unsolved problem of the student may not be completely solved, but with this internship, I’ve begun to chip away at it.