JPL interns explore the career world

When one thinks of interns, images of teenagers running dull errands — fetching coffee, making copies or filing papers — may come to mind.

This picture couldn't be further from reality for the high school and college interns who land a spot in one of Jet Propulsion Laboratory's many internship programs.

With JPL's 26 different internship programs, there is something for every student, whether they are in high school, undergraduate or graduate programs.

There are somewhere around 300 interns working at JPL in La Cañada Flintridge during the summer, according to Priscilla Vega, a JPL spokesperson.

JPL's mission for their interns isn't groundbreaking; they offer students paid employment and research opportunities in a learning, nurturing and professional setting.

Carlotta Pham, a La Crescenta resident and student at the University of California Irvine, has spent the majority of her last three summers working at JPL as an intern. Every year she has done something different.

"I like the environment here," Pham said. "It's very intellectually stimulating; it feels like a college campus."

During the 2008 summer, she was accepted into JPL's summer high school internship program, SpaceSHIP.

After graduating from Crescenta Valley High School in 2009 Pham wanted to continue working at JPL so she enrolled in one of their 18 undergraduate internship programs. She also juggled a post in the education and astrophysics department, exploring ways JPL could use social media as a tool to communicate with the general public.

Through this experience, Pham was able to present her research to some 30 people at the American Geophysical Union's science conference last December in San Francisco; their biggest conference of the year with approximately 20,000 people in attendance.

This summer Pham has been working with JPL's Computer Vision Group, using her tech savvy to develop a code for new software that creates hazard maps by detecting craters.

The program will be used by scientists to store lunar data and to help plan missions to the moon by determining safe lunar landing sites.

It may sound like Pham spends every hour of her summer at a computer inputting jumbled numbers into a coherent code, but she says every day is different.

"I'm not just you sitting at the computer all day, I go out and hear about what other people are doing and what's going on at JPL," Pham said. "They put on a lot of events for the interns."

Usually, she attends a lecture every day. At the lectures, JPL professionals present their recent findings or discuss their career path to shed light on how they ended up with their job.

Interns are also invited to barbecues and different meet-and-greets with upper management. Each student also receives the invaluable tutelage of a few different JPL mentors as well.

"People are really willing to take the time and sit down with you to share what they know to make sure you understand everything," Pham said. "It's really all for the benefit of the interns."

When it comes to Pham's future, she has difficulty dedicating herself to just one career path. She's currently undeclared in the school of engineering at UCI and can't decide what direction to go.

The past three years at JPL have been such a resource for her because it has allowed her to explore three completely different fields.

"It's given me a better sense of what is out there, career wise," Pham said.

Pham feels like she's gained a leg up on her peers because of her track record with JPL.

"My peers haven't had as much hands on experience," Pham said. "I know a lot of people my age haven't had an internship yet or gotten to work with researchers who are on the cutting edge in the field. It's an incredible opportunity to work at a center so widely recognized; not many people ever get to do that."

For more information on JPL's 26 different programs and how to apply visit studentprograms.jpl.nasa.gov.

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