Shoot for the stars

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NASA Space Grant provides valuable research opportunities to undergraduates.

Courtney Pulido never expected to find Mars just outside of Flagstaff, let alone anything pertaining to the greater galaxy. Pulido, a senior geophysics major, was aware of NASA’s research work before she arrived at the university, but didn’t realize these projects went beyond rockets and space shuttles.

But her perceptions changed when Nancy Riggs, a professor of geology, encouraged Pulido to apply for the NASA Space Grant, a program that allows students to work on various scientific projects with the goal of adding to NASA’s growing research. Pulido says she was initially surprised to find that her work at nearby Strawberry Crater could be used by NASA, but soon recognized how it could lead to a better understanding of locations millions of miles away.

“When I heard NASA was involved, it actually made me hesitant if I should apply for it,” Pulido says. “But the more I started thinking about it, it totally made sense. You see how these kinds of formations present on earth are present on other planets, and see how this work is significant to space.”  

Making the connection

Northern Arizona University began administering the NASA Space Grant 25 years ago. Arizona was one of the first states to partner with NASA, which pays up to 10 hours of work per week for students to conduct their research.

Nadine Barlow, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and director of the NASA Space Grant Program, explains that, contrary to popular belief, the work done through the program doesn’t necessarily require researchers who are focused on the stars. According to Barlow, this approach allows students from various disciplines to apply each spring to begin their research in the fall semester. Their work is not just limited to the campus, either - many students conduct research in other locations around Flagstaff.

“We had different interns spread out over different areas,” Barlow says. “We had some in physics and astronomy; we had some students who worked with mentors here on campus, some who worked with mentors at Lowell Observatory, some students who worked in the astrogeology branch at the U.S. Geological Survey. These projects ranged anywhere from studying impact craters on the surface of Mars to studying the formation of planets around other star systems.”

The application process requires students to identify a faculty mentor for a given project before their work with the NASA Space Grant begins. By having faculty working closely with students before the project starts, Barlow hopes to establish close relationships that can be utilized throughout the duration of the program.

“We have much more interaction with our students than other institutions who house the NASA Space Grant,” Barlow says. “We actually meet monthly with our interns, just to see how things are going and to help them prepare. The mentors are always very involved and very accessible to the students.”

Staying grounded

Barlow believes the most important goal of the NASA Space Grant isn’t necessarily in providing research to NASA, but in allowing undergraduate students to develop as researchers in their areas of interest by working with professionals on real science projects.  

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“They learn what research is all about,” Barlow says. “They learn that research is a lot of tedium, actually. There’s a lot of data collection and analysis of the data, and maybe your initial hypothesis isn’t borne out by the results of your analysis. But we feel that this is a really important opportunity for the students to have.” 

After the majority of their research is completed, each NASA Space Grant participant is encouraged to present their findings at multiple symposiums throughout the state. The NASA Space Grant hosts an annual event on April 12 and 13 in Tempe, Arizona, which allows students from around the state who have been funded by the program to talk about their projects and to share some of their results. 

“It’s a great opportunity for the students to actually find out what it’s like to give scientific presentations in front of a scientific audience,” Barlow says.

As for Pulido, she believes the skills she gained working as part of the NASA Space Grant Program have helped her to develop into a well-rounded learner and to become better prepared for job opportunities in geology following graduation.

“Working with the NASA Space Grant is going to get you hired or into graduate school,” Pulido says. “It’s all those little things that show that you can take initiative and put together a good presentation. It makes you more independent and more confident, too. Right now, I feel like I really know what I’m doing.”