Commodore Careers: A summer internship at NASA


Courtesy of James Zhu

Jong Eun Jung, Staff Writer

In this series, The Hustler is rounding up stories from some of Vanderbilt students’ most interesting, impressive and creative summer internships. 

Whether it’s working in a lab or sitting alongside respected politicians, it goes without saying that Vanderbilt students go above and beyond to find summer internship opportunities they are passionate about. Sophomore James Zhu was no different, starting off his career path this past summer at a research lab with NASA. He discovered his interest in stars, space and all astronomy has to offer at a young age, which now translates into his position as a research assistant at the Mechanical Engineering and Discovery Lab at Vanderbilt. As a mechanical engineering major, he wanted to find a new experience where he could use his research skills to explore the subject of aerospace. His chance came through an opportunity to work at a High Contrast Imaging Internship at the NASA headquarters in Los Angeles, which he participated in for 10 weeks. Our conversation gives a glimpse into the innovative concepts he explored in the labs:

What did your internship entail?

My project is called WFIRST. It stands for Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope; it’s a space telescope being developed by NASA JPL, which stands for Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There are a couple of instruments that are going to be carried on this telescope, which is going to be launched around 2024. My job was to design these mounts to be able to put the lenses on to the telescope,  which was kind of a complicated issue, because everything has to be super, super sensitive. There are a lot of special design requirements and considerations that are necessary to make sure the optics don’t bend or deform it in any way.

What skills and knowledge did you gain?

I learned a lot about the technical knowledge and the science behind aerospace engineering. I think also, apart from that, it was interesting to see how the management of a big project like this goes on, because the entire WFIRST telescope project is managed by a facility in Virginia. The communication between the people over there with someone in LA was fascinating. This is a multiple million dollar project, so there’s a lot of people working on a lot of moving parts. Something I gained was an appreciation about was how hard it is and how much effort it takes to manage people.

What was the environment and culture of your internship?

It’s a high stress job. There’s a lot of deadlines that generally aren’t met and most projects go over budget and over schedule. It’s pretty tough, but people actually work a lot better. It wasn’t cutthroat; it wasn’t competitive. It was an entirely collaborative kind of environment, which I really appreciated, and I think was unique compared to a lot of private companies in the field of engineering. So, I just liked how everybody around was really happy to talk to me, even though they all had a lot of work to do. They really went out of their way to make sure that I was doing alright, and that I had enough work to do and understood everything that was going on.