The Summer of an Aspiring Scientist

By Anna Hessler, MAS Intern

As a college STEM major, summer breaks are typically highly sought after. For a few short months, we do not have to worry about creating 5-Day study plans, finding time to eat or forgetting what our friends and family look like. Our skin gets some sunlight, we read a book about something other than Microbial Genetics and our families are grateful. However, for some of us these summer breaks get delayed a little longer!

This summer I had the opportunity to work on campus at the university I attend, UMass Amherst. I met every single freshman student matriculating to the university this fall as a New Student Orientation leader. I spent my days giving tours of the university, acting as an academic advisor and teaching the new students study skills!

In the few weeks after the program ended and before I had to begin another on-campus position, I decided to fly out to Los Angeles to visit my older brother. We did some pretty basic touristy things, like follow the Walk of Fame and visit Huntington Beach. After getting an intense sunburn and plenty of souvenirs, my inner science geek took over when I discovered that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was giving a presentation at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), a research university that JPL is affiliated with.

Naturally, I dragged myself out of bed at 6 in the morning on a Summer Saturday to attend the event with my brother, an art major, in tow. For anyone who has not been to Caltech, it really should be one of the top ten things on your bucket list. Caltech’s 124 acre campus is located in Pasadena, surrounded by caltechpalm trees and the San Gabriel Mountains. Being 10 miles from downtown LA and 27 miles from a beach, it feels more like a destination vacation than one of the world’s top science and technology universities.  Caltech has produced five Nobel laureates and most of their undergrads continue on to become crucial members of scientific industries, academia and law. (You can learn more about Caltech at their website, here!)

One of the most exciting parts about Caltech is the relationship they have with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Lucky for me, an employee from JPL was giving a presentation on the Caltech campus about their past and future projects (and attempting to recruit some students for an internship opportunity!). The representative spoke about the history of JPL and its founders before diving into a slide about Deep Impact, a past mission that taught researchers about the composition of comets.

Deep Impact was a mission launched in 2005 and was their first attempt to get a close look beneath the surface of a comet. This mission is most well known for the impact between the comet Temple 1 and the impactor spacecraft. This collision produced a magnificent flash of light that was actually captured on camera (see image to the right). Later, it was discovered that this light was actually a cloud of powdered minerals and materials that contained evidence of ice. This discovery was so important because it clued researchers into the fact deepimpactthat the comet was completely composed of this powered material, and not actually a solid, held together by gravity. Upon examination, the minerals were revealed to contain carbon and other organic elements. The high gravitational force protects the inside of the comet from environmental changes and solar heating, meaning that any ice inside may not have changed since the comet’s creation! The evidence of organic materials and potentially water could further the hypothesis that there is life out in space!

Future projects made up a major component of the presentation since they are projects that the audience could be part of after college! The mission that most students seemed excited about was the Mars Exploration Program: 2020 mission. Due to Curiosity’s great success, this program was created with the intention of exploring the surface of the planet to look for more signs of life. The date was chosen based on a time when Earth and Mars orbits’ are most advantageous. (Learn more about Deep Impact and other JPL programs here!)

While there were no roller coasters or fresh-squeezed lemonades in my summer, I was given the opportunity to see another person express their excitement for science and share their research. If given the chance, I would take Mars over a beach any day as well!

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