The countdown to the launch of STEREO — twin
space-based observatories designed and built by the
Laboratory — has begun, and only weeks remain
Chris Olson hopes his carriage won't have turned into
a pumpkin by then.
For the past two summers, Olson, a graduate student in
computer science at the University of Minnesota, has
interned in APL's Space Department. Specifically, he has
worked as a software engineer for the NASA-sponsored
STEREO Mission, which hopes to bring back the first 3-D
"stereo" images of the sun to study the nature of solar
Olson's plan is to head down to Cape Canaveral in
Florida with the APL team to view the launch in person. It
would be his first such experience and a dream come true.
Olson realizes, however, that the earliest the launch can
happen is Aug. 20, and any delays would mean that on the
big day he would be back in Minnesota.
In any case, the small-town Minnesota native can still
hardly believe his good fortune.
"I don't know if I'll be able to go [to the launch],
but it's still very cool that I'm actually working on
something for NASA. My friends are jealous," said Olson,
who has worked on software that handles telemetry data that
come back from the spacecraft. "I have the power to screw
something up and delete everything [laughs]. There is a lot
of responsibility on me."
Olson is one of a record-high 114 undergraduate and
graduate students interning at the Lab this summer.
Each summer, APL offers scores of science and
engineering internships that allow students like Olson to
conduct research and grow professionally while working
alongside APL principal staff. As Olson will attest, the
work these interns do is the real deal.
"My days are just like everyone else's here in the
Software Department. I work from 8 to 4, go to all the
meetings and, if people have problems, they even come to me
and ask," Olson said. "I'm treated just like an employee
here, not an intern."
Pete Medrano, college relations manager at APL, said
the internships provide the students with practical work
experience and an introduction to the mechanisms of APL.
The internships also allow students to put a foot in the
career door, Medrano said, as several interns have later
moved on to permanent positions with APL.
As for the program's benefit to the Lab, "we view
[its] importance as twofold," Medrano said. "One, [the
students] provide a vital addition to the work force during
the summer months. They also offer us more visibility on
college campuses, as our interns share their experience
with other students when they return."
The Lab currently offers three internship programs.
The majority of students take part in the Technical College
Summer Internship Program, which places interns in nearly
every technical department. APL also offers two
diversity-oriented programs, ATLAS and GEM.
ATLAS, the APL Technology Leadership Scholars program,
is a highly competitive 12-week offering that focuses on
technology leadership development. It is open to students
from historically black colleges and other minority-serving
The National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for
Minorities in Engineering and Science, known as GEM, is a
nonprofit organization that helps minority students attend
graduate school and provides students with paid summer
internships. Underrepresented minorities eligible for the
GEM program are American Indians, African-Americans,
Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and other
Hispanic-Americans. The 30-year-old program, of which APL
is a founding member, was conceived by Lab employee Ted
This summer, APL launched a pilot business intern
program for college-level students majoring in
finance-related disciplines. Under this program, eight
students are currently working in the Lab's business
The Lab also annually places NASA interns in its Space
Department and has 10 such interns this summer. Olson was
among them in 2005; this year, he applied directly to APL
for the position he now holds.
All the interns work full time and earn a competitive
salary. During their stay, the Lab hosts welcome and
farewell luncheons and offers workshops, seminars and tours
of the campus.
Medrano said the internship programs have become
increasingly popular and competitive. Last year, more than
2,000 students nationwide and from Puerto Rico applied for
positions. To be eligible, students must be enrolled in a
technical discipline such as electrical engineering,
computer science, math or physics and maintain a 3.0 or
better grade-point average.
This year's crop of interns comes from more than 35
colleges, including several of the country's top
engineering schools. Historically, the most represented
school has been the University of Maryland, College Park.
This summer, 10 of the students come from Johns
Intern Ian Wing, right, with
mentor Andrew Merkle, acting group supervisor for the
Biomedicine Group, and a crash-test dummy in the Impact
Photo by HIPS/WILL KIRK
Among them is Ian Wing, a
Wing, a rising senior, has spent his summer months
conducting biomechanics research focused on whiplash and
injury mechanisms. His work is part of a larger study that
is evaluating U.S. Department of Transportation standards
that specify car seat characteristics, such as head
restraint position, in an effort to reduce injuries.
Currently, Wing is working with crash-test dummies in
the Lab's Biomechanics Section to best determine how to
mitigate human injuries in automobile crashes. Among his
duties is helping staff find a better and more efficient
way to analyze and process data from the tests.
"It's been pretty challenging work," said Wing, who
last summer conducted orthopedic research in Bayview
Medical Center's Biomechanics Lab. "I really learn a lot
doing research. I enjoy the purism of it all —
figuring out what's going on in the world for yourself,
rather than have someone else tell it to you. I'm
contributing a lot, but at the same time I'm taking a lot
out of it."
Andrew Merkle, Wing's supervisor, said that summer
interns provide an invaluable service for APL.
"We get young, motivated persons to come in here with
new ideas and a fresh outlook," Merkle said. "They're
interested in doing a lot of work, and the summer months
allow them to do that. We can't get this sort of
concentrated effort from students during the school
Speaking of school terms, Olson, the University of
Minnesota graduate student, has his fingers crossed as he's
looking skyward before his own fall semester begins.
"Last year I knew [STEREO] was set to launch in 2006,
but I never thought I'd have even a chance to go to it,"
Olson said. "I'm still holding out hope."
Applications for internship programs at APL are
accepted from Sept. 1 through March 31. For more
information and to apply, go to