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A Summer Internship at NASA

Cristina Ortiz, SCE, spent 10 weeks doing research

Cristina Ortiz has always known exactly what she wanted to do.

“I always wanted to be an astronaut,” she said. “I liked watching them and thought it would be exciting.”

She hasn’t made it to outer space just yet. But this past summer, she got as far as Cleveland.

Ortiz, a senior studying electrical and computer engineering at the School of Computing and Engineering at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, spent part of her 2012 summer break in Cleveland, Ohio.

This could beg the question: “Why would you spend time in Cleveland?”

Ortiz was selected for a 10-week internship at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field there, named in honor of retired astronaut and former U. S. Senator John Glenn. She was accepted through the Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology – MUST – program, which provides opportunities for students to participate in research or experiential learning under a mentor at a NASA location.

Her motivation for the space agency flagged briefly while she attended McCoy Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo. But at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy she regained her interest in science – this time it was engineering.

“Mechanical or electrical like my dad, who studied electrical engineering,” Ortiz said. “I liked my high school electromagnetism class. I liked it more than any other class. It was my spark from my Dad.”

That spark grew into more of a flame for Ortiz, which led her to the engineering school at UMKC.

Fast forward to her junior year at UMKC when Ortiz learned about NASA’s MUST program. She immediately completed the application, including letters of recommendations. On the day the selected interns were to be announced, Ortiz checked and there was nothing. That was in June 2011.

“I didn’t find out until later that summer that I had been accepted. The questions were very difficult, and I didn’t think I had made it,” said Ortiz.

She chose Cleveland because it was closer to home, and she had never been away from her family. Ortiz said that “for those of Mexican descent, family views are different from some American’s.”

“We, as a family, make decisions, and we have chores for the oldest child, which include helping with siblings. That’s my responsibility. So, when I told them about the internship, I wasn’t sure if I could go or not. My parents did agree to let me go.”

When she told her brothers that she could go to NASA, the two older boys – ages 17 and 12 – understood. Her 5-year-old brother needed an explanation.

Ortiz told him what an opportunity this was for her and for them.

“It means that for 10 weeks I’m fortunate enough to have an internship, and it will help me meet many people, who can mentor me and share opportunities with me. And, I can share them with you. I want you to know that you can go anywhere and be anything.”

For a student who did not like research, Ortiz spent the summer at NASA in the research department, working on tribology – the study of friction, wear and lubrication. She worked on a spiral orbit tribometer, learning to simulate a ball bearing.

“It was exciting. My job was all about research, and now I am open to it,” she said. “My mentor said that I am prepared for whatever area I decide on.”

A total of 77 students were in the MUST program; three students were in Ortiz’s group at Glenn Research Center. Each had a mentor, and they were at different stages in their education – one male student had just finished his freshman year in high school; a female student had just graduated from high school; and Cristina had completed her junior year in college.

“This opportunity is open to everyone, but girls see it as a ‘guy thing’. They need to see someone doing it and doing it right, then they get it. I saw a female engineer from Burns & McDonnell. She was my motivator, and now she’s my mentor,” said Ortiz.

In addition to her busy academic schedule, Ortiz is involved in the Avanzando program, a partnership between UMKC’s Division of Diversity, Access & Equity and the Hispanic Development Fund. As an HDF Scholarship recipient, Ortiz receives academic support, mentoring and enhanced access to campus and community resources. Also, she serves as secretary for Eta Kappa Nu (HKN), an electrical and computer engineering honor society.

And, what does an electrical engineer do? 

“I am not restricted to any one field; I am qualified to take positions in areas where mechanical engineers work. I pursued power engineering, but I might work in an area of renewable engineering sources,” she said. “I switched from mechanical and still may pursue automotive engineering, like design or a different area. Mostly, I would like hands-on to learn from the ground up, where I can assist engineers.”

Ortiz thought about changing majors when the workload became too overwhelming. She even talked with her SCE advisor, Deborah Dilks, about it.

According to Ortiz, Dilks told her that she was meant to be an engineer and to go to NASA. Dilks then gave her a NASA sticker, which she hid away.

“I kept the sticker hidden for a couple of months. When I received my acceptance letter into the internship, I took it out and put it on my desk at home,” said Ortiz. “It’s still there.”

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“I liked my high school electromagnetism class. I liked it more than any other class. It was my spark from my Dad.”

Cristina Ortiz
Senior, School of Computing and Engineering