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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 7, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 41
Adventures In Space (Etc.)

Computer science graduate student Chris Olson, right, with Mike Farrow, assistant group supervisor of the Ground Applications Group, and Paul Lafferty, STEREO ground software lead, in the STEREO Mission Operations Center at APL.

Every summer, scores of college students join the working ranks at APL

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

The countdown to the launch of STEREO — twin space-based observatories designed and built by the Applied Physics Laboratory — has begun, and only weeks remain before liftoff.

Chris Olson hopes his carriage won't have turned into a pumpkin by then.

For the past two summers, Olson, a graduate student in computer science at the University of Minnesota, has interned in APL's Space Department. Specifically, he has worked as a software engineer for the NASA-sponsored STEREO Mission, which hopes to bring back the first 3-D "stereo" images of the sun to study the nature of solar eruptions.

Olson's plan is to head down to Cape Canaveral in Florida with the APL team to view the launch in person. It would be his first such experience and a dream come true. Olson realizes, however, that the earliest the launch can happen is Aug. 20, and any delays would mean that on the big day he would be back in Minnesota.

In any case, the small-town Minnesota native can still hardly believe his good fortune.

"I don't know if I'll be able to go [to the launch], but it's still very cool that I'm actually working on something for NASA. My friends are jealous," said Olson, who has worked on software that handles telemetry data that come back from the spacecraft. "I have the power to screw something up and delete everything [laughs]. There is a lot of responsibility on me."

Olson is one of a record-high 114 undergraduate and graduate students interning at the Lab this summer.

Each summer, APL offers scores of science and engineering internships that allow students like Olson to conduct research and grow professionally while working alongside APL principal staff. As Olson will attest, the work these interns do is the real deal.

"My days are just like everyone else's here in the Software Department. I work from 8 to 4, go to all the meetings and, if people have problems, they even come to me and ask," Olson said. "I'm treated just like an employee here, not an intern."

Pete Medrano, college relations manager at APL, said the internships provide the students with practical work experience and an introduction to the mechanisms of APL. The internships also allow students to put a foot in the career door, Medrano said, as several interns have later moved on to permanent positions with APL.

As for the program's benefit to the Lab, "we view [its] importance as twofold," Medrano said. "One, [the students] provide a vital addition to the work force during the summer months. They also offer us more visibility on college campuses, as our interns share their experience with other students when they return."

The Lab currently offers three internship programs. The majority of students take part in the Technical College Summer Internship Program, which places interns in nearly every technical department. APL also offers two diversity-oriented programs, ATLAS and GEM.

ATLAS, the APL Technology Leadership Scholars program, is a highly competitive 12-week offering that focuses on technology leadership development. It is open to students from historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions.

The National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, known as GEM, is a nonprofit organization that helps minority students attend graduate school and provides students with paid summer internships. Underrepresented minorities eligible for the GEM program are American Indians, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic-Americans. The 30-year-old program, of which APL is a founding member, was conceived by Lab employee Ted Habarth.

This summer, APL launched a pilot business intern program for college-level students majoring in finance-related disciplines. Under this program, eight students are currently working in the Lab's business offices.

The Lab also annually places NASA interns in its Space Department and has 10 such interns this summer. Olson was among them in 2005; this year, he applied directly to APL for the position he now holds.

All the interns work full time and earn a competitive salary. During their stay, the Lab hosts welcome and farewell luncheons and offers workshops, seminars and tours of the campus.

Medrano said the internship programs have become increasingly popular and competitive. Last year, more than 2,000 students nationwide and from Puerto Rico applied for positions. To be eligible, students must be enrolled in a technical discipline such as electrical engineering, computer science, math or physics and maintain a 3.0 or better grade-point average.

This year's crop of interns comes from more than 35 colleges, including several of the country's top engineering schools. Historically, the most represented school has been the University of Maryland, College Park. This summer, 10 of the students come from Johns Hopkins.

Intern Ian Wing, right, with mentor Andrew Merkle, acting group supervisor for the Biomedicine Group, and a crash-test dummy in the Impact Biomechanics Lab.

Among them is Ian Wing, a mechanical engineering major.

Wing, a rising senior, has spent his summer months conducting biomechanics research focused on whiplash and injury mechanisms. His work is part of a larger study that is evaluating U.S. Department of Transportation standards that specify car seat characteristics, such as head restraint position, in an effort to reduce injuries.

Currently, Wing is working with crash-test dummies in the Lab's Biomechanics Section to best determine how to mitigate human injuries in automobile crashes. Among his duties is helping staff find a better and more efficient way to analyze and process data from the tests.

"It's been pretty challenging work," said Wing, who last summer conducted orthopedic research in Bayview Medical Center's Biomechanics Lab. "I really learn a lot doing research. I enjoy the purism of it all — figuring out what's going on in the world for yourself, rather than have someone else tell it to you. I'm contributing a lot, but at the same time I'm taking a lot out of it."

Andrew Merkle, Wing's supervisor, said that summer interns provide an invaluable service for APL.

"We get young, motivated persons to come in here with new ideas and a fresh outlook," Merkle said. "They're interested in doing a lot of work, and the summer months allow them to do that. We can't get this sort of concentrated effort from students during the school term."

Speaking of school terms, Olson, the University of Minnesota graduate student, has his fingers crossed as he's looking skyward before his own fall semester begins.

"Last year I knew [STEREO] was set to launch in 2006, but I never thought I'd have even a chance to go to it," Olson said. "I'm still holding out hope."

Applications for internship programs at APL are accepted from Sept. 1 through March 31. For more information and to apply, go to


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