This summer I spent 10 weeks doing research at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. As part of the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s Summer Intern Program I had the opportunity to work one-on-one with a planetary scientist on cutting-edge research in the USA. I couldn’t have imagined how much I would learn, not only about the extremely inspiring work at NASA but also about the American lifestyle and culture. I set off to Houston in order to develop myself as a scientist, gain skills in research and data analysis, and form more focused plans for my future academic and career steps. Little did I know I would end up meeting astronauts, touching moon rocks, tour Mission Control Center, achieve my scuba diving certificate, and party at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab.
My research project was on protocol development for organic and inorganic surface contamination monitoring in NASA’s curation cleanrooms. These are highly sterile environments where extra-terrestrial materials are stored and handled in order to minimise contamination from Earth or human sources. I analysed data using an ICP-MS, GC-MS and SEM, allowing me to develop skills I gained at university as well as acquire new analytical techniques. I am very grateful for my incredible advisor who I worked closely with during my internship. Beyond teaching me about scientific writing and cleanroom technologies, she inspired me as an empowering female role model.
Moving to Texas for 10 weeks allowed me to immerse myself in a new culture but it also gave me a whole new perspective on European life. At first, I was quite shocked by the Texan lifestyle, with everyone driving big cars everywhere, even for the smallest distances, the massive meat consumption, and every single item of grocery being packed in a different plastic bag. It made me appreciate how environmentally friendly Edinburgh is with its many vegan and vegetarian restaurants, the UK’s recent ban on certain plastic items, and numerous student-led sustainability initiatives. I realised there the importance of leadership and legislation in the fight against climate change.
I was so amazed by the diversity of NASA’s work, from the building of spacecrafts that will take us to Mars to the development of astronauts’ food. The best part of this whole experience, however, was befriending so many like-minded interns. My favourite aspect of American culture was the optimism and “dream big” mindset of the people. With their drive and passion, they taught me to be outspoken in my ambitions and how to make the most of every opportunity presented to you.