Many college undergraduates majoring in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) programs find summer internship experiences with work in labs, lecture halls or an office. Upper Iowa University senior Anna Winter’s internship wasn’t of the normal summer variety. In fact, she not only worked on a research project and communicated with professionals in her preferred career field, she visited places and did things very few people are allowed to do.
You can almost say her internship was out of this world.
During summer 2019, the Rochester, Minnesota, native was one of only 28 college or university undergraduates nationwide to be chosen to participant in the Student Airborne Research Program (SARP). Funded by NASA and managed by the National Suborbital Research Center, the eight-week internship program allows qualifying undergraduates hands-on research experience in all aspects of a scientific campaign using one or more NASA Airborne Science Program flying science laboratories.
“The time I spent as a SARP intern turned out to be the best summer of my life,” Winter said. “I am especially grateful to my chemistry professors Dr. (Erik) Olson and Dr. (Jeff) Butikofer, who first informed me about the program and encouraged me to apply. I feel my entire UIU education prepared me for the experience, but the statistical methods taught by my professor of physics and mathematics, Dr. Nigel George, was especially beneficial. The coursework focused heavily on data analysis and applying statistical methods, and the material taught in this class was especially evident throughout my residency.”
During the internship, Winter had the opportunity to assist in the operation of aircraft instruments that sample atmospheric gases, and image land and water surfaces in multiple spectral bands. Program participants split into four groups that focused on different aspects of Earth science: 1) atmospheric science – whole air sampling, 2) atmospheric science – air quality and aerosols, 3) oceanic processes and 4) forest remote sensing.
A UIU biology, chemistry and mathematics major, Winter was assigned to the air sampling team. As part of her duties, she collected and analyzed air
samples and other data from a NASA DC-8 flying science laboratory. Winter described the NASA DC-8 flying science laboratory as a modified commercial airplane with all of the seats removed to make room for 35 different scientific instruments.
Winter and her colleagues were able to identify and analyze 100 different gases from air samples collected at various altitudes over the different topography of the region, including different wineries in California’s Central Valley region.
“We were especially interested in the methane, carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons in the air samples as those are gases that have a big impact on global warming,” Winter said.
SARP participants were also required to produce a research project that they had to formally present at the end of the internship program. Winter’s research project focused on investigating elevated hydrogen levels in the Los Angeles and Bakersfield areas.
“I decided to conduct this research because of my fear that increased hydrogen in the atmosphere may be cause for humans to consider utilizing
hydrogen gas as fuel source, which could lead to the depletion of stratospheric ozone,” Winter said. “My research also provided insight into factors that contribute to sources of hydrogen in the atmosphere and looked at the advantages and disadvantages of using hydrogen as a fuel source.”
Winter and other interns generally work on data collection and analysis during weekdays, but on weekends they were provided the opportunity to exclusively visit facilities that helped further enhance their internship experience. Among her favorite experiences were a tour of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center and Griffith Observatory, and participating in extracurricular activities such as sky diving.
While visiting the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Winter had the unforgettable opportunity to watch the next Mars Rover being built and also sit in the mission control room.
“It is really cool knowing that whenever I read about the Mars Rover, and after it launches next year, that I saw it being built in person,” Winter said. “I have also seen Mission Control previously on TV for different missions and it felt very surreal sitting in the chair that the flight director sits.”
Participating in the 2019 SARP program heightened Winter’s interest in climate change and global warming, and the importance of their
further studies. The knowledge and experience gained from the program has inspired Anna to major in atmospheric chemistry in graduate school, earn a Ph.D. and pursue a career with NASA.
“The thing that I have learned at UIU and will most benefit me in the future is not to be afraid to get outside of my comfort zone and take chances,” Winter said. “Everywhere I went on Fayette Campus over the past four years, people were friendly and treated you like family. I love being able to interact with people of all different backgrounds, cultures and interests, and it is this type of atmosphere that I continue to love about being a Peacock.”
Winter credits these educational and life lessons garnered at UIU and through her recent SARP internship for providing her the continued confidence to shoot for the stars.