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How I Got A Dream Internship At NASA To Work On The Mars Rover

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NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is one of those dreamy places where unthinkable is achieved. During my third semester, I developed an interest in applying for a summer internship at JPL but got disheartened when I found out that NASA was not open to foreign nationals (FN) for internships. In my fifth semester, I finally mustered up the courage to apply and started emailing technologists at JPL asking them if they would be willing to host me for an internship.

Among the very few replies that I received, only one was affirmative. The rest all stated how FNs were not considered, due to the logistics involved. I had a Skype chat with the professor who had expressed his interest. He liked my resume and was willing to offer an internship. Caltech SURF, a program which provides students with an opportunity to carry out research under the guidance of researchers at Caltech and JPL, was restricted to US citizens only. So, I pitched the idea of applying via the JPL Graduate Fellowship Program (JPLGF). However, JPLGF was open only for graduates. Being an undergraduate student, I wasn’t eligible.

He told me that there was a place for only one summer intern in his group, and he would consider me if I turned out to be the best among all the aspirants. I was shortlisted for the second round of interviews. Although the chances of getting selected were faint, I had to give my best. The interview started with a comprehensive discussion about my project at the Autonomous Mobile Research Laboratory (AMRL), UMass Amherst, which was ‘joint perception and planning for efficient obstacle avoidance using stereo vision’.

In the project, we had used stereo cameras to make autonomous mobile robots that were robust in detecting obstacles. This was completely different from the conventional techniques of using sensor modalities. I talked about how it was relevant was to even the Mars Rovers. Then I was asked questions based on my achievements and skills as mentioned in my resume. I also talked about the motion planning algorithms I had implemented as a member of Kharagpur Robosoccer Students’ Group. He checked my C++, ROS, and OpenCV coding skills by skimming through my GitHub profile. Once he was convinced that I had the required skills and experience, he said, “I think I’m convinced that you’re the one.”

I was waiting impatiently for my offer letter, when I received an email entitled ‘Bad news – we cannot bring you to JPL on the JPLGF program’. The mail read – “Education Office has been asked by senior management to discontinue the JPL Graduate Fellowship Program, JPLGF, effective immediately. We will no longer extend mentor-funded internships to foreign interns.”

During my correspondence with JPL, I had rejected the internship offers from other institutes like Max Planck Cybernetics. I was devastated! I couldn’t concentrate on anything and cried endlessly, so my parents offered to pay for my stay in California. Self-funded internships, however, were not possible. Another option was to secure funding from a third party organisation, like government, college, etc. and participate in the JPL Visiting Scholar Research Program (JVSRP). Again, this was really difficult!

The last possibility was to contact a Caltech professor and apply for a SURF project which had a collaboration with JPL. Only twenty days were left for applying to SURF and most professors would have chosen interns by then. The aforementioned professor recommended me to two Caltech professors. This accelerated the process and one of them asked me to draft my SURF proposal. The SURF application involved an application form regarding my personal details, a project proposal, three confidential letters of recommendation, and an unofficial transcript.

I completed my application and drafted a proposal outlining my project details and how I planned to complete the project during the 10-week timeframe. I checked each and every detail and took care of even the most minor bits like commas. The results were to be announced a month later. I was filled with anxiety even though my mentor assured me of my chances to get through it. The probability held good and I got the confirmation for selection. I let out a sigh of relief!

SURF/JVSRP was a 10-week internship program during which I worked on risk-aware probabilistic motion planning for future Mars Rovers which aimed to reduce the conservatism of the present autonomous navigator of the Mars 2020 Rover. In layman terms, I developed a new algorithm that would increase the efficiency of autonomous navigation for Mars Rovers. During that summer, JPL had around 900 interns because of the Europa and Mars 2020 missions.

I was an intern at the Robotic Systems Estimation, Decision, and Control Group (347-E). I used to test my algorithms on the Athena Rover, which is a small-scale testbed for the Mars Rover. We used to carry out the testing at the Mars Yard, which is a very touristy spot at JPL. I felt very privileged to be able to contribute to the huge code repositories which have been maintained for more than 10 years by people seasoned in robotics.

JPL had an unusual charm and places like mission control centres at Space Flight Operations Facility amused me. Working with the pioneers of space exploration was like a dream come true! If the Jedi were real, they would be at JPL! May the force be with them forever.

During my stay, I travelled a lot around the beautiful cities of Pasadena and Los Angeles. We had every alternate Fridays off-work, so we’d hit Old Town Pasadena for drinks, go bar hopping, and explore major tourist attractions like the Hollywood sign, Universal Studios, Santa Monica, and Malibu. I also visited the California Science Centre where the space shuttle

I also visited the California Science Centre where the space shuttle Endeavour is displayed. I travelled to the east coast and went to UMass for a week and saw fireworks in New York on July 4 and of course, the breathtaking Manhattan skyline!


About the Author: Sourish Ghosh, a student of IIT Kharagpur, talks about his struggle to land an internship at NASA and the events that followed. This story was first published on Internshala.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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