North American X-15 on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

This summer, Adrianna Foster (Col ’12, Grad ’17), an environmental sciences student, was accepted into the UVA’s Intensive Summer School in Computing for Environmental Sciences, which also came with an eight-week internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Foster kept a journal of her experience.

Adrianna Foster, an environmental sciences graduate student, spent 8 weeks at NASA this summer. Photo by Stacey Evans
My original plan for this summer, my first as a graduate student, was to go to Brazil for three months and research wolves in the Cerrado. Unfortunately, the plan fell through and I was left with no dissertation project, and nothing to do during the coming field season. When I was accepted into the summer computing program, my anxieties about succeeding as a grad student were lifted. I would be learning to code and to analyze satellite data, which might help me find a new research project. Best of all, I would be working at a NASA space flight center. NASA!

Week 1

The first two weeks of this program, known as “coding boot camp,” were held at UVA in the Mechanical Engineering Building. Since I am an environmental sciences student, I had never really ventured into this space at UVA. There were model airplanes in display cases, and paintings of rocket ships adorning the walls. It felt strange being among all this technology.

Even though I still wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into, I was excited for the first day of class. I had taken a statistics course in the spring where we had to use what I thought was coding. I took to it pretty well, which tricked me into believing that I was already a talented programmer. I quickly realized my mistake when I had never heard of half the words our teacher was saying.

Halfway through the first week, I felt I was starting to get the hang of things. Coding was starting to pervade most of my other activities. In yoga, when we were supposed to be meditating, lambda functions and list comprehensions sneaked into my brain. I had a dream in which I was trying to write a code for falling asleep and it frustrated me so much that it actually woke me up.

Week 2

Delta-B rocket on display at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland
The second week of class was all about high-performance computing. This means taking a complicated program that processes a huge amount of data and running it faster and more efficiently on multiple computers. UVA has a cluster of computers available for students and professors to use for their code.

My initial code still had bugs in it, but I finally knew what I was doing, and I was finishing the lab assignments each day. I wrote programs that computed the value of pi and modeled heat transfer through a steel plate. Programs that would normally take hours or even days on my computer took seconds on the UVA cluster.

Week 3

Before I left Charlottesville for my NASA internship, I went to see the new Star Trek movie. I walked out of the theater pumped for my upcoming time at the space flight center. Space! Warp drives! But in no way was I prepared for how much I would love working for NASA.

"Super" plug

While wandering around NASA’s Goddard center looking for a restroom on my first day, I suddenly heard a loud buzzing noise. I looked up, and above one of the lab doors there was a sign depicting a laser, and it was flashing and buzzing. Apparently they were testing remote sensing equipment, and were shooting lasers at things. I also discovered that the Mars Exploration Lab was in my building, complete with a sign on the door saying, “Caution, space flight hardware.” I felt like the coolest kid in school getting to work here.

Week 4

On Thursday of this week, I got a tour of the NASA supercomputer. It was kind of like the UVA computer cluster, only much bigger. When I walked into the room, I was instantly hit with a wave of chilled air. The researchers giving me the tour told me it had to be kept this cold to cool off all the computers running at top speeds.

Dozens of shelves held stacks upon stacks of blinking computers, all interconnected with various multicolored wiring. Walking down an aisle felt like entering the control room of a spaceship. One of my tour guides showed me the comically large electrical plug used to power just one rack of computers.

On board the supercomputer

I also got to see some robots. At NASA, all the data that won’t fit on researchers’ personal computers are housed in hundreds of square tapes. These tapes are also stacked on shelves, and when data needs to be retrieved, little robots get a signal and, like futuristic librarians, go and find the tape, pull it out, and send the data back to the researcher.

Week 5

During my last weeks at NASA, I got some hands-on experience working with remote-sensing data, also known as satellite analysis. My task was to use satellite images of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to generate maps of land cover (including mangrove, other forests, agriculture and urban development areas). I first had to enhance the actual images of the area, which, by the way, came in 10 different pieces I would eventually have to meld together. I then had to “classify” the images, which meant breaking each image into even smaller pieces based on how they looked. At times, the process had me fighting back the urge to chuck my laptop out the window (don’t worry, NASA, it was my own personal laptop). But the end result was incredibly rewarding. I had a giant map of the Yucatán, and everything fit together. I even printed out a huge version of the map as a memento of my first remote-sensing success.

So far my summer has been amazing, and not at all what I thought it was going to be (coding is a far cry from traipsing through wilds of Brazil). I am so glad I got a chance to live the nerd dream at NASA. Thank goodness for extenuating circumstances.