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An Internship Like No Other

The experience may be different this summer, but almost a dozen interns are helping the ESDIS Project office and EOSDIS DAACs move vital work forward.

Josh Blumenfeld, NASA EOSDIS Science Writer

Every summer a small meeting room in NASA’s Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) Project office becomes a center of activity. The work done in the room represents the future of many ESDIS projects, and the individuals who spend 10 weeks in the room every summer are, in many respects, the future of the ESDIS Project. This room is the work center and home-away-from-home for a majority of the interns supporting the ESDIS Project. At least, this is how it works most summers.

But not this summer. This summer all ESDIS staff are telecommuting, and have been since mid-March. The same is true for staff at all NASA facilities and at universities and other centers of excellence that host or support NASA Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs). Even so, NASA Earth observing data are still being processed, archived, and distributed. And, thanks to interns working from home across the country this summer, vital ESDIS and DAAC projects are moving forward along with important enhancements to systems and software.

Of course, a virtual internship is not the same as an in-person experience, and this poses unique challenges for both interns and their mentors. For interns supporting the ESDIS Project office and the DAACs during the summer of 2020, this is an internship like no other.

Headshot of Maggie standing outside in front of a tree.

ESDIS Project office summer intern Maggie Zhu, University of Maryland.

“When I received the internship offer, they made clear that this would be a remote internship,” says Margaret (Maggie) Zhu in a virtual interview. Maggie, a rising sophomore computer science major at the University of Maryland, is supporting the ESDIS Project office this summer. “Not being able to be on the actual NASA campus and being able to physically meet people face-to-face is a bit disappointing. But I’m fine with this. Overall, I was just really excited that I was chosen for this opportunity.”

Over her 10-week summer internship, Maggie worked with her mentor, EOSDIS system architect Dr. Christopher Lynnes, to develop a proof of concept for a user interface to make it easier for data users to quickly assess the applicability of datasets in the EOSDIS collection to specific applications, such as flood monitoring or air quality. “This is a good experience for me to put the skills that I’ve learned in class as a computer science major into practice,” Maggie says. “With this internship I’m also exploring some new software-related tools, which is also a really great learning experience.”

To help further refine her dataset discovery project, Dr. Lynnes asked Maggie to help design and run a data discovery hackfest at this summer’s Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) Summer Meeting. “The idea is to bring together a number of people within ESIP to work on a proof of concept of usage-based discovery, work on what the user experience should be like for this discovery, and then actually go out and find more of these relationships between applications and datasets,” explains Dr. Lynnes. “This will help EOSDIS since a lot of our users are applications users and it can be difficult for them to precisely find the data they need for their particular application.”

As Dr. Lynnes notes, the shift to a virtual internship had some unexpected benefits. “We originally had a completely different summer intern project in mind,” he says. “When we realized we would not be able to do an in-person internship, we pivoted to this usage-based discovery project that Maggie is working on. This allowed us to open up the scope of Maggie’s project to not just the ESDIS Project, but also ESIP.”

NASA’s highly-competitive Internship Program brings together college and graduate school students (along with recent graduates and qualified high school students) to work on projects at NASA centers and facilities across the nation. Internships are available throughout the year, with summer internships lasting a minimum of 10 weeks and fall and spring internships lasting a minimum of 16 weeks. Detailed information and an electronic application can be found on the NASA Internships and Fellowships website: https://intern.nasa.gov/.

Another intern supporting the ESDIS Project office this summer, Sara Garcia-Beech, is part of the NASA Pathways Program. Unlike standard NASA internships, which are designed to be short-term opportunities to gain experience supporting NASA tasks, the Pathways Program offers the chance for permanent employment as a NASA civil servant after successful completion of an academic degree and other program requirements. More information about the program is available at https://www.nasa.gov/careers/pathways-program.

Headshot of Sara in a formal studio pose with a black background.

ESDIS Project office Pathways intern Sara Garcia-Beech, University of Maryland.

Sara, a rising senior computer science major at the University of Maryland, started the Pathways Program this past fall semester working part-time with Flight Software Systems before rotating to work on her ESDIS project this summer. Prior to joining the Pathways Program, she did a regular internship in the summer of 2019 working on software for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). She will continue her work with the ESDIS Project through the end of the year, working part-time during the fall semester while attending classes at Maryland.

This summer Sara developed an application to monitor and provide better security for content on a messaging application called Slack. She also worked on a proof of concept for an Amazon Web Services (AWS) product called Workspaces to support cloud remote access on behalf of ESDIS systems. Both projects make extensive use of her background in cybersecurity. As noted by her mentor, ESDIS computer engineer and security manager Chris Mishaga, this work is an important piece of enhancing security for ESDIS collaborators and partners. “Slack is the best tool for us to communicate with external partners, but we have to have security built into the tool to make sure we’re not sharing files with viruses or distributing information that should not be out in the cloud,” he says. “Her AWS Workspace work will help our external collaborators and partners access our environment in a very secure way.”

Like Maggie, Sara has mixed feelings about having to work virtually this summer. “On the one hand, I would much rather be in an office interacting with everyone and in the office culture that you don’t get when you’re doing everything virtually,” she says. “At the same time, I’m grateful that I can continue with my work at NASA. I know a lot of people whose work and internships were canceled at the last minute since companies or organizations just didn’t have the capability to do things remotely.”

As Maggie, Sara, and their mentors are quick to note, working virtually has challenges, especially with communication. For Maggie’s daily tag-ups with Dr. Lynnes, they initially used the Webex conferencing application, but switched to using Slack voice and occasionally pure phone to lower the burden that teleconferencing programs place on computers. They also exchange messages throughout the day via Slack. While this strategy has been effective, both note that this is not a substitute for face-to-face interaction. “I think as good as we’ve tried to make the virtual experience, there really is no substitute for being able to do this in-person,” says Dr. Lynnes.

Sara’s mentor Chris Mishaga agrees. “Time management and communications have been the two biggest challenges,” he observes. “We’ve done [virtual meetings], but it’s not the same; it’s just not. Being able to have those office sidebar conversations, pulling other people in, has been non-existent.”

Along with Maggie and Sara, ESDIS Project summer interns are remotely supporting a wide range of projects at EOSDIS DAACs (see table below).

2020 EOSDIS DAAC Summer Interns

2020 EOSDIS DAAC Summer Interns
DAAC Intern School Academic Year Project
Atmospheric Science Data Center (ASDC) Meaghan Harrington Thomas Nelson Community College, Hampton, VA Completing Geographic Information System (GIS) Technician Certificate Using data from the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer (MISR), Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere (MOPITT), Tropospheric Emission Spectrometer (TES), and Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations (CALIPSO) instruments to investigate the impact of fires in Sub-Saharan Africa on regional air quality.
ASDC Jenna Howard Thomas Nelson Community College, Hampton, VA Rising Junior Using data from the MISR, MOPITT, TES, and CALIPSO instruments to investigate the impact of fires in Sub-Saharan Africa on regional air quality.
ASDC Kathy LaMarsh D’Youville College, Buffalo, NY Master’s Degree Candidate Creating user guides for various campaigns along with helping in the creation of sub-orbital story maps.
ASDC Grace Weaver New River Community College, Dublin, VA Rising Sophomore Using data from the MISR, MOPITT, TES, and CALIPSO instruments to investigate the impact of fires in Sub-Saharan Africa on regional air quality.
Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center (GES DISC) Abhinav Kumar Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA Rising Senior Implementing a machine learning framework using natural language processing.
GES DISC Lauryn Wu Harvard University, Cambridge, MA Rising Sophomore Implementing a machine learning framework using natural language processing.
Physical Oceanography DAAC (PO.DAAC) Cassandra Nickles Northeastern University, Boston, MA Ph.D. Candidate Producing resource material for PO.DAAC’s Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) mission page (https://podaac.jpl.nasa.gov/swot), including developing tutorials and data recipes based on cloud services and focused hydrology user needs.
Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) Alexandra Hays Columbia University, New York City Rising Senior Working on the upcoming release of the third version of the Urban-Rural Population and Land Area Estimates, which is part of the Low Elevation Coastal Zone (LECZ) data collection. Also assisting in developing Web Map Services for this and other SEDAC datasets.
SEDAC Serena Killion Columbia University, New York City Rising Senior Analyzing nighttime lights data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument and assisting in developing Web Map Services for this and other SEDAC datasets.

For computer science majors Abhinav Kumar, a rising senior at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and Lauryn Wu, a rising sophomore at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, their work this summer supporting NASA’s Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center (GES DISC) complements their studies and provides the opportunity to explore new applications of their work.

GES DISC is the DAAC that archives and distributes data related to atmospheric composition and dynamics, global precipitation, hydrology, and solar irradiance, and is located at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Abhinav and Lauryn are working on two aspects of a project based on implementing a machine learning framework using natural language processing (NLP) to make it easier for GES DISC data users to find appropriate datasets.

Headshot of Abhinav wearing a suit and tie.

NASA GES DISC intern Abhinav Kumar, Georgia Institute of Technology.

Abhinav’s work focuses on taking various natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, and analyzing various text sources that mention these disasters. This is done by fine tuning a pre-trained NLP model with relevant scientific research papers and Wikipedia articles. The objective is to compile a list of variables or keywords that can help provide a semantic understanding of these disasters. “We can use these lists of words and phrases to connect disasters to the datasets that GES DISC has stored, and allow datasets to be more easily provided to scientists who might need them,” he says.

Lauryn’s work also is helping to improve results from the GES DISC search engine. After extracting geophysical variables related to user queries, with a specific focus on queries related to wildfires, she created related concept maps to serve as domain models (ontologies) and applied decision trees to provide a better correspondence among the map entities and related variables. “Once these variables are derived, people can use them to return relevant GES DISC datasets,” she explains.

Abhinav is a returning GES DISC intern, and was working on the same project this past spring semester. When telecommuting was required starting in mid-March, he not only had to shift his work to a home office, he also had to drive back to his home in Atlanta. “I’ve definitely never had an experience like that before,” he says. “Back in February or early-March, it wasn’t mandatory to telework, but it was recommended. I felt, okay, we’ll get through this in a couple of weeks. Then it just kept going for longer and longer. Eventually, I just realized that this is what it’s going to be. I originally drove up from Atlanta, so I just drove back over a weekend.”

Headshot of GES DISC summer intern Lauryn Wu standing outside with a tree behind her.

NASA GES DISC intern Lauryn Wu, Harvard University.

Lauryn also was not surprised at the shift to a virtual internship. “I knew the internship was either going to be online or canceled,” she recalls. “I was actually relieved to hear that the program was continuing virtually. Switching to a virtual internship made sense given the situation.”

For both Lauryn and Abhinav the lack of social interaction is a missing component this summer. “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be; most of the work can be done on our home computers,” Lauryn says. “Still, this summer lacks the social interaction that you would normally have, like being able to ask your mentors a question and having them be physically available nearby. Also, of course, being able to interact with other interns.”

Abhinav agrees with the lack of intern interaction. “One challenge is connecting with other interns,” he says. “When I was on-campus, we would have lunch together pretty much every day. There are still ways around this, I guess. We have remote talk sessions, but it’s not really the same.”

Lauryn and Abhinav’s three mentors also are dealing with the challenges of a virtual internship. “One aspect that I really miss by doing this virtually is the chance to talk with them personally, face-to-face,” says GES DISC computer engineer/systems engineer Long Pham. “I think the social aspect of the internship is important. Not being able to sit and discuss technical details with the interns or do something as simple as taking them to lunch is tough on everybody.”

Dr. Bill Teng, a GES DISC principal scientist, agrees. “Technology helps mitigate this down-side, but it’s the best we can do under the circumstances,” he says. “We’re pretty much restricted to the VPN [virtual private network].”

“I like to work on the whiteboard – face-to-face with the interns – discussing, for example, deep learning algorithms,” says GES DISC data scientist Arif Albayrak, Lauryn and Abhinav’s third mentor. “Sometimes it’s difficult to do everything online. This sort of work and interaction, such as showing our interns our [Earth Observing System] mission centers, just isn’t happening this summer.”

All three mentors, though, are quick to note the contribution of Lauryn and Abhinav’s work to GES DISC. “Having these interns really helps us move forward,” says Dr. Teng. “Ultimately one of our goals is to enable the GES DISC search engine to become a smarter one. Having interns like Abhinav and Lauryn has been really important in keeping the forward motion going.”

Back at the ESDIS Project office, Maggie’s mentor Dr. Lynnes points out another valuable aspect of work done by the interns. “I often design intern projects so that the interns will be blazing new territory that we have not gotten into—or had the time to get into—at the ESDIS Project,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to explore new technologies to see what they can offer us. What often happens is that I end up learning as much, sometimes more, than the intern learns from me.”

As the ESDIS and DAAC virtual summer internships come to an end, the interns know that their virtual experience likely will continue as they prepare to return to their respective schools. During this unique summer, both interns and their mentors gained valuable lessons-learned about ways to foster effective communication, support a team whose only interaction is via computer, and maximize the limited resources of a home office.

What is perhaps more important, though, is what is being left behind after an intense summer of work. By coming together virtually, connected only by a computer and a VPN, interns and mentors were able to contribute to the future of NASA’s ESDIS Project and make EOSDIS data more usable.

“You know, there’s a lot of clout to being able to put on your resume that you worked for NASA,” says Sara’s mentor Chris Mishaga. “Whether you stay with NASA or not, I guarantee you employers are going to notice that and they’re going to respect that. You probably did something there that was meaningful.”

Published August 10, 2020

Page Last Updated: Aug 12, 2020 at 9:53 AM EDT