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To Infinity and Beyond: Interning with NASA SARP

Written by: Emily Najacht

Emily Najacht, a senior chemistry major at Saint Mary's and junior environmental engineering major at the University of Notre Dame, had the opportunity of a lifetime to intern with NASA. Her summer was spent studying earth processes and presenting the findings of her research to NASA scientists. 

This summer I was able to spend 8 weeks in Southern California as a research intern for the NASA Student Airborne Research Program (SARP). NASA SARP strives to give undergraduate students a unique research experience by incorporating in-situ data collection with the opportunity to conduct one’s own individual research project.

Many times I stopped to ask myself, “How did I get so lucky?” This question often popped into my head when I found myself in places and situations I never thought I would get the chance to experience. In order to give you a better idea of what I mean, I’ll recount each time I felt this question enter my head.

The Phone Call

The first time this question entered my head was the moment I had received the phone call notifying me of my acceptance into the program. It brought me back to the nervousness and surprising confidence I had when I submitted my application. When most people think of NASA, they think of deep space exploration and astronauts. This, however, was not the case with NASA SARP. Instead, it was an internship focusing on earth processes, the changes our earth is going through, and the consequences of our actions as humans. I knew I had to apply. Despite the long shot, I thought, “Why not? What do you have to lose?”

Arrival in California

After completing my first solo air trip I was introduced to 31 other undergraduate students who, like me, were both excited and anxious about the upcoming weeks. That first night we all met our fellow students and our potential advisors. What I found interesting was the broad spectrum of STEM majors included. There were engineers, chemists, physicists, earth scientists, mathematicians, meteorologists, and more. We all shared the notion of wanting to make a difference. It was quite inspiring to see that people from different backgrounds and different regions of the nation could come together and collaborate with one another.

That first week in Palmdale we received lectures from top NASA scientists and the advisors from the four possible groups we could join. The four groups consisted of the atmospheric chemistry group, the Whole Air Sampler (WAS) group, and the land and ocean groups. Due to my majors in both chemistry and environmental engineering, I was placed in the atmospheric chemistry group. During that time we were also given a tour of the NASA Armstrong Facility, including several of the planes that resided there. I was even able to cross something off of my bucket list, eating astronaut food!

Flight Day

During the summer we also had the opportunity to fly aboard two planes, the Sherpa and the King Air. We collected in-situ data measurements using instruments that measured greenhouse gas (GHG), ozone, and nitric oxide (NOx) concentrations throughout our flight. I was able to fly aboard the Sherpa, which flew at low elevations. We would attempt missed approaches at airports so we could get concentration measurements close to the ground. The low elevation flying, turbulent air and extreme heat (115℉) made for an interesting ride ending with a few students using their puke bags. By the end of the flight, everyone on board was more than thrilled to be back on the ground.

I, however, was lucky enough to take part in the instrument start-up and shutdown and learned more about the WAS group. Their instrumentation onboard consisted of large “snakes” which included a series of cans connected to outside air via valves. At varying times throughout the flight, WAS members would open the valves to collect air samples within the cans. The cans would then be loaded off the plane and taken back to the lab to run GC-MS.

Sequoia National Park

The next day we hit the road, setting our sights on Sequoia National Park. What mapped out to be a three-hour drive turned into eight hours due to stops for can collection. One stop in particular was Oildale, just north of Bakersfield, California, where there were an excessive amount of active oil wells. Other stops included dairy farms and crop lands ending with Sequoia National Park.

What surprised most of us was the fact that the park actually contains some of the highest air pollution in the country. Pollutants originating from the San Joaquin Valley, which is host to vast areas of agriculture, dense traffic, and oil wells, are pushed up via the Fresno Eddie. Initially, the boundary layer is able to keep the pollutants close to the surface, but as the day warms up the boundary layer rises, and pollutants are swept up the side of the valley into Sequoia National Park. When you think of a National Park you think of clean and healthy air, so it was disheartening to hear that our actions as humans had tainted that picture.

After collecting several cans we went on hikes and stood in awe of the sheer immensity of the trees around us. We even explored one of the many caves in the area. At night the lack of artificial light allowed the sky to show the true brilliance of what is beyond our solar system. Quite breathtaking, if you ask me.

Relocating to Irvine

After the first two weeks of the internship, we relocated to the University of California Irvine campus. The rest of the summer was spent bonding with my group members and hammering out what would be the final product of my time at NASA, my own research project. We also went on a few more tours, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, CalTech, and the Mt. Wilson Observatory, which is home to the 100-inch telescope. We listened to a lecture from Dr. Mike Brown, who is more well-known as the scientist who demoted Pluto from its planetary status. At one point, I even held in my hand the Nobel Prize medal belonging to Dr. Frank Sherwood Rowland, who conducted research on chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere and their contribution to stratospheric ozone depletion!

Presentation Day

During the last week of the internship we presented our individual research projects in front of our peers, mentors, advisors, and NASA scientists. The broad range of work that was completed by the 32 students was astonishing. Projects included using missed approached chemical concentration data to determine which planes were giving off the most harmful pollutant plumes, using NOx data to highlight the inequitable distribution of monitoring sites and overall pollutant concentrations in the Los Angeles region, and improving upon current remote sensing techniques used for active fire mapping. All of these projects opened the door for future work.

My project focused on using isoprene as a probe of drought impacts on ozone chemistry in the San Joaquin Valley (SJV) of California. We hypothesized that due to the drought, trees underwent severe drought stress and thus emitted substantially less biogenic volatile organic compounds (VOC), or more isoprene than normal. Because VOCs play a major role in tropospheric ozone production, any major fluctuation in VOCs can alter the ozone production chemistry within the SJV. Originally, the SJV was a NOx limited regime, meaning that in order to lower tropospheric ozone concentrations, you need to lower NOx concentrations. We, however, hypothesized that because of this large decrease in VOCs, the ozone chemistry regime actually began to transition to a VOC limited regime. This becomes important when policies are being enacted to limit tropospheric ozone production. Depending on which ozone chemistry regime you are in, that determines whether or not limiting VOC or NOx concentrations will be more effective in your aim to reduce ozone. Tropospheric ozone, unlike stratospheric ozone, can cause serious health problems and is a major concern within the SJV area.

Moving Forward

The internship granted me the opportunity to learn from highly intelligent people and make lasting friendships. It also helped shape the path for my future. Having experienced such an in-depth research experience, I found that my heart is not set on research, but more on a pathway leading to industry or consulting. What happens from here I am not yet sure, but I do know the path I choose to follow will be greatly impacted by the summer I spent working for NASA.