UH Hilo students visit and intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, glimpsing future careers

Heather Kaluna, UH Hilo assistant professor of astronomy and alumna of the same program, is urging her students to either tour or intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. She says exposure to this type of facility is vital for furthering students’ academic engagement and their understanding of available career tracks.

By Leah Sherwood.

Signage at the main entrance of the facility: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.
Entrance to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. Photo credit: JPL.
Heather Kaluna
Heather Kaluna

Educational and career opportunities for astronomy students studying at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo are strengthened by the astronomy infrastructure based on Maunakea, allowing them to gain academic and professional expertise in the field of observational astronomy.

However, over the past three years, promising UH Hilo students have also had opportunities to tour and intern at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, thanks to the mentorship of Heather Kaluna, a UH Hilo assistant professor of astronomy and alumna of the same program.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, is a federally-funded research and development center managed for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) located in Pasadena, Calif.

According to Kaluna, access to this type of educational and professional opportunity is vital for furthering students’ academic engagement and their understanding of available career tracks. “We have been trying to take UH Hilo students to JPL just to expose them to NASA facilities we don’t have access to here on the island,” she explains. “I think for them it’s a huge motivator and provides a vision of what they can potentially do or be after they graduate.”

For students from Hawai‘i Island, just touring JPL is an eye-opening experience. “Being born and raised on the island of Hawai‘i, I never understood the opportunities available at other institutions,” says Chansen Haili, a UH Hilo junior majoring in physics and astronomy. Haili toured JPL with seniors Jennifer Bragg, a math and physics major, and Andrea Waiters, a physics and astronomy major. UH Hilo astronomy instructor Daniel O’Connor also attended the tour.

Andrea stands next to large signage: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. At left are US flag and other flags.
Andrea Waiters, a UH Hilo physics and astronomy major, on tour at the Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, Calif, May 13, 2019. Courtesy photo.

Waiters says that during the tour they previewed future projects and toured the California Institute of Technology campus.

“We learned about Starshade, which is a next-generation space telescope that is still being theoretically designed,” explains Waiters. “We learned about what cutting-edge research Caltech is doing. It’s a campus that focuses mainly on research, so it was interesting to see how a research institution is run.”

Students who participate in tours also have the opportunity to apply to internships.

Patrice Smith

Patrice Smith
Patrice Smith

Patrice Smith, a senior from Riverside, Calif., majoring in astronomy, was accepted for an internship the year after her tour. It was her first time working with data from a space telescope.

“My job was to go through images in the database taken by a project run by JPL called NEOWISE,” says Smith, who was mentored by Joseph Masiero, a scientist studying asteroids and comets at JPL. “It’s a spacecraft that is in low earth orbit that has been going around Earth and taking pictures of the sky around us in infrared light.”

According to Smith, the primary goal of NEOWISE (which stands for Near Earth Object Wide Infrared Survey Explorer) is to detect nearby comets and asteroids. During her internship, she investigated near-earth asteroids that had been detected by other telescopes in order to verify that NEOWISE’s image processing algorithms had captured them too.

Smith says the whole experience went beyond learning about science. “It was beneficial in terms of me learning how to do the science, but what it really did is it gave me insight into what’s required in the field that I am studying as far as future employment. It gave me a sense of what skills I will need or I do have and how to utilize those skills. You are at a place where there are so many resources and opportunities to meet with others in your field.”

Kaluna and Masiero have collaborated since they were astronomy doctoral students together at UH Mānoa. Masiero, who visited the Hilo campus a few years ago to speak with UH Hilo students about the astronomy profession, says the tours give students insight into future career paths.

“While students get to see an array of academic careers through their professors, and Hilo students in particular have a unique vantage on the possible careers working at a telescope given their proximity to the facilities in Hilo, another great option is a research position at a federal research facility like JPL,” explains Masiero. “By visiting and seeing some of the work being done here, the students have the opportunity to find a career path that is in line with their goals and interests.”

Kaluna credits Masiero with obtaining funding for the students through JPL’s Center for Academic Partnerships, which covers the cost of a roundtrip plane ticket from Hilo as well as housing costs.

Vanessa Zepeda

Vanessa Zapeda
Vanessa Zapeda

UH Hilo graduate student Vanessa Zepeda, from Arizona, is in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program. She completed a 14-week summer internship at JPL under the mentorship of Michael Tuite, manager of JPL’s Astrobiogeochemistry Lab.

“I was working on a biomarker called maleimide, a degradation product of chlorophyll pigment,” says Zepeda. “There are lots of different maleimides present in the water column and different ones are correlated with different types of microorganisms. By isolating the maleimides by their masses you can infer the ecology that was present.” She says she extracted maleimide samples from a wide variety of geologically significant places on Earth. “The majority were done in a site in Indiana that represents the Devonian Period, when there was a mass extinction event.”

The possibility of a summer internship at JPL was not on Zepeda’s radar, and arose thanks to some interdisciplinary networking. Enrolled in a graduate school internship class in spring 2018, Zepeda was connected with Kaluna after expressing professional interest in astrobiology to Lisa Canale, the course instructor. “Lisa thought it would be good to connect us because of Vanessa’s interest in astrobiology and my own experience with the UH NASA Astrobiology Institute,” says Kaluna.

After finishing her summer internship, Zepeda returned to JPL for a shorter internship this semester. The summer internship was funded by the Maximizing Student Potential (MSP) program at JPL and the Hawai‘i Space Grant Consortium, which subsequently funded the fall internship as well.

Kaluna’s mentorship has ultimately led Zepeda to land both JPL internships and the offer of a slot in a doctoral program at Queensland Institute of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University.