Chemical engineering senior Elizabeth Barrios envisions her future during NASA internship

Chemical engineering senior Elizabeth Barrios with her NASA mentor, Dr. Luke Roberson.

This past summer, chemical engineering senior Elizabeth Barrios spent 15 weeks as an intern for NASA’s hands-on Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP). While there, Barrios was exposed to a number of research areas that helped her envision her academic and professional future. The following interview was published on the USRP's website.


By Heather L. Ogletree

It is not uncommon for an intern to take part in many unrelated projects while at NASA. The area of expertise at each center and within each organization tends to cover a wide array of possibility, and many engineers are called upon to stretch their expertise to serve NASA's mission. For Elizabeth Barrios, a senior at Wayne State University, branching out into different projects was a blessing in disguise. Originally her project was to "support the Exploration Technology Program's project on Environmental Control and Life Support Systems water purification and delivery system." Translation: turning waste water, sweat, and condensation into potable water by using antimicrobial additives. However, over the course of her 15 week hands-on Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP) internship, Dr. Luke Roberson, Barrios' NASA Mentor, not only gave her the opportunity to contribute to research for ISS survival systems, she was also exposed to a variety of other projects that matched her interests and, most importantly, matched her background in chemical engineering, helping her to find her vision and plan for her future.

In the interview below, Barrios tells the story of her journey through USRP-what she learned, the challenges she faced, her successes, her career goals, and her advice to future interns.

1. What do you like best about your chosen academic discipline?

I like the wide application of Chemical Engineering. I work with multiple people who have a degree in Chemical Engineering, but they all have taken that degree and done something different with it. One guy that I work with [took] his knowledge of Chemical Engineering and has been designing new systems to extract resources from planetary regolith. A few of the other people I work with have taken their Chemical Engineering degrees and gone down the Materials Science Engineering path studying topics ranging from corrosion to polymers to nanocomposites. Someone else has taken their degree and pursued a higher degree in Aerospace. A degree in Chemical Engineering provides you with a sound background that you can manipulate to do pretty much anything you want…..[and] I am very grateful for the understanding that my Chemical Engineering classes have given me. I know that Thermodynamics and Heat Transfer will definitely be something I must understand even during my advanced education plans of Materials Science Engineering.

2. What challenges do you feel you have had to overcome to accomplish this internship award?

I have had to overcome many obstacles in order to achieve this internship. The first of those obstacles would be the motivation to keep going. Since beginning college, I have applied to every NASA internship I could find and get my hands on. And every time, I would receive an email notifying me that they were sorry they could not offer me a position at that time. Every rejection letter made me question whether or not I was smart enough for this and if I even chose the right academic discipline to get me into NASA. When I received the call from my mentor that I received this internship, I was completely awestruck and just that call reassured me that I was in fact doing the right thing with my life. With my internship coming to a close, I am even more reassured that I have a clear path ahead of me that will lead me to a career with NASA.

Another challenge I have had to overcome was one that was reoccurring throughout my life. When I was younger, I was always asked what I wanted to do with my life. I would always answer with "I want to work for NASA." Most of my immediate friends and family would encourage me to pursue that dream and tell me I will make it there one day, but there were also people who would tell me that I would never work for NASA. Their reasons ranged from "NASA is ending" to "so many people apply for that job, so your chances of getting a job are slim to none." I have even had people tell me to my face that NASA is just a joke and that none of it is real. I am so glad I didn't listen to those rude comments as a child and I continued to pursue my dream because I have loved absolute every minute, well except maybe the threat of a government furlough, of my internship and cannot wait to become a full-time employee.

3. Did you always desire an opportunity to work for NASA?

I have always had the strong desire to work for NASA. I became deeply engrossed in everything NASA during my first trip to Kennedy Space Center when I was ten. My family and I took the visitor's tour and everything little thing they showed us made me more and more excited to learn more about NASA, space, rockets, etc. I was completely sold when I walked into the Saturn V visitor's center and was able to walk underneath the giant Saturn V rocket. I was in complete awe. From that day forward, I never had to hesitate when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up because I knew that I wanted to work for NASA!

4. What have you liked best about your NASA USRP internship thus far?

What haven't I liked about my internship so far is probably a better question. This is a really hard question to answer as there are so many things I have liked. First of all, I loved being able to wake up every morning and say I'm going to NASA today. To be able to call NASA my place of employment, even if it is just a temporary 15-week position, was an amazing feeling. I can't wait to wear the permanent NASA badge and to be able to say I am a permanent, full-time, NASA employee. That will be an awesome day!

Secondly, I loved that my mentor actually listened to what I was interested in. In a meeting with my mentor, I had mentioned that I was really intrigued by the materials science aspect of the Chemical Engineering world and that I was thinking that Materials Science Engineering would be a future advanced degree for me. My mentor really listened to what I had to say as he made sure that I was exposed to a variety of the materials research ongoing at KSC. I was able to spend the first 6-7 weeks of my internship seeing how microbes interact with different types of materials in water treatment systems, like those used during space travel. During the next few weeks, I was able to help fabricate, deploy, and analyze the hydrogen sensing tape placed on the hydrogen line flanges during the STS-133 launch. I was also able to learn about materials failure analysis and composite manufacturing and testing. During the final 4 weeks of my internship I was able to learn about In-Situ Resource Utilization, a collaboration project between multiple NASA centers including KSC and Marshall Space Flight Center.

5. What challenges have you faced thus far in regard to your assigned project?

My assigned project for which I was hired was "Microbial Materials in Water Treatment Systems." This was the research that I completed during my first 6-7 weeks at KSC and is probably the area where I faced my biggest challenge. The most challenging part here was my lack of a strong biological sciences background. I have not had a biology course yet in college because it is only one of my general education requirements and I just have not taken it yet. While conducting this research, we had to evaluate how different microorganisms reacted to different materials when placed in a simulated water treatment system environment. The numerical and mathematical analysis of the reaction between the microorganism and the material was not hard for me; it was the understanding of what those numbers meant that proved to be a challenge. Luckily, the researchers I was working with were experts in the biological sciences and were willing and able to teach me along the way. They have definitely allowed me to understand the research I was doing and have given me confidence to tackle my biology requirement I need to graduate.

Another challenge that I had to deal with while interning at KSC was probably a challenge that multiple NASA interns have been exposed to. That challenge was all of the funding and budget issues. The first half of my internship was great! The funding was still being provided and all the research efforts were going strong. About halfway through, there was a major contract change and lot of people were laid off and lot of funding was lost. Prior to accepting my internship position, my mentor told me there was going to be a contract change and that some funding would be cut. He told me that this term would be a bit hectic and to not be discouraged. I definitely was not discouraged with these issues started to surface as I know that every company and business goes through its up's and down's. It kind of stinks that these issues had to surface now and that there were definitely some slow days, but it is all part of the business world. I am glad that I was given the chance to experience these types of problems first hand. I have learned how to deal with these things and how to continue to learn and prepare for research when funding becomes available. I have even been able to learn the process about applying for funding proposals. Even though no one wants to have to deal with budget/funding issues, I am glad that I have got to work through it and have been able to learn as a student prior to being a full-time employee. I believe this issue has definitely provided me with some beneficial skills that I can take with me in my future career.

6. What are your career goals after graduation?

This internship has opened my eyes to the exciting world of Materials Science Engineering and its applications to the NASA. So upon my undergraduate graduation in May 2013, I definitely plan on pursuing a graduate level degree in Materials Science Engineering, probably focusing on composites and polymers. After speaking with my mentor and other colleagues in the Materials Science division of the Engineering Directorate, I was advised to immediately pursue a master's degree as opposed to waiting a few years. They suggested that while obtaining a master's degree to become involved with a NASA graduate level co-op position or a NASA graduate fellowship so that I can remain in the NASA system and have a higher chance for employment after I obtain my graduate degree. I will be taking their advice and will pursue one of these paths.

7. What are you most passionate about in regard to your project? What did you learn?

Because my internship ended up covering a wide range of projects, I am going to talk about Materials Science research in general and where I have discovered my interests lie. In general, I am really intrigued by the world of polymers and composites. I definitely have a budding passion for developing new and revolutionary materials that can be used for future space travel. I have been able to attend multiple proposal planning meetings and collaborations about making a new material to do something revolutionary. Some of these ideas that I hear, it just blows my mind and it's exciting to see how prevalent developing new, revolutionary materials is to the world of NASA and space travel.

In regards to what I have learned, I have learned an abundance of different things in the world of Materials Science research it is impossible to explain them all. In terms of composite materials, I have learned that depending on the way your orient your layers in the composite matrix, the composites will exhibit different physical properties. I was able to see these effects first hand by running tensile testing on composite samples as well as virtually through an engineering software. I was able to learn about polymers while working on the hydrogen sensing tape project. I learned that the polymer matrix that contains a chemochromic sensor can greatly affect the quality of the sensor. In terms of hydrogen sensing at the launch pads, a silicone matrix was the best because it did not affect the color change taking. Some other polymers that were used reacted with the chemochromic sensing pigment or were affected by UV light, producing color changes not related to hydrogen exposure. I have also learned some other random things related to materials science research such as how to use a Scanning Electron Microscope for failure analysis purposes and how to properly cut and make composite samples for physical testing. All of these things only cover a brief portion of all the things I have learned during my 15-week internship.

8. What was the most interesting thing about working with water treatment systems? What is the impact of your project?

In terms of water treatment systems, the most interesting thing for me was to see how a microbe reacts to the different materials that were placed within the simulated water treatment system. It was really neat to see how the simple surface topography alone could change the antimicrobial properties exhibited by a material.

This project definitely has a big impact on space travel, especially longer duration missions (i.e. Mars, etc). When going on a mission to space, there is a requirement for the amount of potable water needed per astronaut per day. Because it is impractical to provide the necessary amount of potable water on the shuttle prior to lift-off, the water is recycled through a closed-loop system. The continuous recycling of water easily provides an ideal environment for microbial growth within the system, possibly contaminating the potable water with pathogenic and opportunistic organisms; therefore, compromising the astronauts health. Currently, chemicals are used to disinfect and rid the microbes in the water. Although these methods have sufficiently decontaminated the water, they must be in constant resupply as their potency decreases over time. So developing a new method for decontamination of water is crucial for these future long duration missions past low-Earth orbit.

9. What words of advice do you have for future interns?

My advice for future interns would be to definitely make the most of your internship. Don't hold back! Make sure you take advantage of all the learning seminars that are readily available to you, take part in center-wide activities, and definitely make sure you talk to your colleagues. Your colleagues are a great source of information for how to land a job a NASA; they have done it before and for some of them, it has been fairly recent. If you want to come back or participate in more NASA opportunities, talk to your mentor. They are a great source of information and as long as you show them great things, they can also be a great source for letters of recommendation.

Reprinted with permission from the NASA Undergraduate Student Research Program

You can read more about Elizabeth's research here