Engineering Physics Graduate Student Gains Skills, Life Experience During NASA Internship

Michelle Nadeau
Michelle Nadeau worked for the Space Mission Analysis Branch at the NASA Langley Research Center during a Summer 2020 internship.

My name is Michelle Nadeau. I am a Master’s student in Engineering Physics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – Daytona Beach. On campus, I am the President of the Student Veterans Organization and the Alumni Relations officer for Valkyrie. I plan to be a space systems engineering project manager after graduation.

I grew up in Massachusetts but have lived all over the U.S. and overseas. My interest in engineering originated in the FIRST Robotics Competition in grade school. I completed my Bachelor of Physics at American University and was a summer intern at Boston University’s Photonics Department, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and NASA Space Academy at Glenn Research Center. I served over eight years in the Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer, at sea on USS Ingraham (FFG 61) and USS Chancellorsville (CG 62) and ashore at U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

During summer 2020, I had the opportunity to intern at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA.

Where did you work during summer 2020 and what was your title?

This summer I worked for the Space Mission Analysis Branch at NASA Langley Research Center. The center is in Hampton, VA, but I teleworked from Florida due to COVID. My official title as a Pathways intern was “Student Trainee (Engineering).”

What were your responsibilities?

Most of my work assignments were ongoing systems analyses in support of the Moon to Mars (M2M) Integrated Campaign concept study. I also supported shorter, one-off assignments, including a decision analysis activity for NASA Headquarters and revisions to a Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate policy document.

The M2M Integrated Campaign Point of Departure (POD) is NASA’s working campaign concept for sending humans back to the Moon and on to Mars. We also had in the trade space two alternative campaigns with different departure dates for Mars and interplanetary propulsion systems. Each candidate campaign’s architecture is designed to incrementally increase human exploration mission duration and complexity as we ramp up toward going to Mars as early as the 2030s. This requires a complex manifest and delivery schedule (timeline) to support all the missions with what they need and when they need it. I volunteered to be the temporary point person to compile the launch manifests and timelines of the POD campaign and the two alternative campaigns while the regular point person was on family leave. I coordinated with subject matter experts in logistics, tanker design, Mars trajectories, cargo landers, Gateway, and costing to ensure I correctly integrated their data and any changes into the manifests and timelines. By working from this “thousand-foot view” on the campaigns, I developed a solid understanding of the various supporting mission elements, ranging from launch vehicles to surface habitation modules. For each candidate campaign, I calculated the number of tankers required to fuel the propulsion stages going to Mars and incorporated those launch numbers into the launch cadence and analyzed the impact of the propellant transfer rate on the campaign timeline.

How did you obtain this opportunity?

While preparing my resume and interview skills for the October 2019 Industry/Career Expo, I decided to also check USAJOBS for NASA internships and found this one.

Why do you think it is important to do an experiential learning opportunity such as this?

There are a lot of jobs that sound really interesting in theory but are not enjoyable in practice. Also, if you can afford to, it is nice to separate what you are good at from what you want to do for 8ish hours a day. For example, you may be very good at data entry but you may not want that to be your entire job.

What skills have you acquired at Embry-Riddle that make you a better intern?

I found myself repeatedly using what I learned in my BA511 Operations Research class.

What advice do you have for students who struggle to find the right Pathways Internship, or other opportunities for themselves?

In general: Your resume gets you an interview, your interview gets you the position. So if you usually get interviews but you aren’t offered the position, you likely have a good resume but need to work on your interviewing skills. I liked working with Career Services to practice interviewing.

It is totally okay if you don’t get the coolest internship ever the first time out. One opportunity is often a stepping stone to the next, bigger opportunity. It is also totally okay if the internship material was not your cup of tea. Learning what you don’t want to work on is equally important to learning what you DO want to work on. For example, my first internship was at Boston University’s Photonics Department. It was a tiny program (not particularly prestigious); it made sense for me to apply because I was very interested in communications and optics at the time. My second internship was with quantum optics at NIST; it made sense for me to apply because I was still interested in communications and optics. It was a pretty prestigious program; my mentor there said he liked my application because I could bring that photonics experience. My third internship was NASA Space Academy; it made sense for me to apply because I was very interested in astrophysics and engineering. It was a very prestigious program; my mentor there said he liked my application because he respected my NIST experience and the fact I had completely changed research topics did not matter. As you can see, BU was a stepping stone to a bigger opportunity at NIST, which was a stepping stone to an even bigger opportunity at NASA and along the way I learned that I did not want to work in optics and communications.

Specific to Pathways: Pathways positions are usually only open for a week on USAJOBS so I highly recommend using the ‘Saved Search’ feature to notify you when new positions open up.

This interview originally appeared in the Career Services Going Places blog.