Elijah Spiro’s dream of becoming an astronaut was deferred when he developed Type 1 diabetes. His passion for aeronautics, however, drove him to find a new way to contribute to the space race through an internship at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He was also allowed to bring along Nova, his service dog that senses when his blood sugar levels are too high or low.
Three times a year, nearly 2,000 students like Elijah apply for and secure internships at NASA centers across the country. Increasingly, their ranks also include students in high schools, community colleges, universities and graduate schools who are self-identified as having disabilities. The increase in their numbers is not by chance. It’s driven by a partnership between NASA and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) that is casting a wider net to ensure students with disabilities have an opportunity to pursue their space career dreams as well.
Missy Matthias, who runs the current NASA Internship Program’s disability coordination unit for the USRA/NASA partnership, is a driving force behind the inclusion of more NASA interns with disabilities. “When I took over the program earlier this year, I had a directive to find ways to improve our participation of these students.”
“We reach out to students and veterans with disabilities at events throughout the United States,” Matthias continues. “The events are not specifically for students with disabilities, but a significant number of them attend. That gives us the opportunity to encourage them, along with other students, to apply for a NASA internship.”
The new approach is achieving results based on Matthias’ operational plan. She sifts through materials applicants have submitted for each session in the fall, winter and spring. She also visits conferences that she knows science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students with disabilities will attend. Using targeted recruitment, Matthias has a wide array of students with disabilities to present to NASA centers across the country.
“At each NASA center, there is an internship coordinator. Rather than searching through thousands and thousands of applicants, I provide each of those coordinators with information about the skill sets of students that have identified as having a disability that I hope will match the projects at their center,” she says.
Along with hands-on experience, interns at NASA receive STEM mentoring in a number of ways. “In our division, interns have a primary mentor who helps them with organizational skills and a technical mentor who helps develop their technical skills. Sometimes that is the same person or it may be two different people. Interns also receive mentoring from division-level Intern Coordinators,” explains Elijah’s mentor, Jamie A. D. Szafran, a computer scientist and engineer at NASA Kennedy Space Center.
Spiro interned in the software engineering branch at NASA Kennedy, a unit responsible for writing code that launches rockets and ensures all conditions are safe prior to launch. He focused mostly on developing automated testing procedures that emulate human code testing. The double major in computer science and astronomy says he now knows where he wants to be when he graduates—at NASA writing code that benefits humanity.
Veronica Seyl, NASA Internships Operational Manager, and Amanda Smith Hackler, USRA supervisor for the NASA Internship Program, have been pleased with the early results of the initiative. In the first four months of the refocused effort, Matthias has exceeded the goal of placing two students with disabilities in internships at each NASA Center. To date, 65 interns with disabilities have been placed. “Missy has come in with a different rigor about how we can help place more students with disabilities in the internship program. The effort is a little different and more targeted,” says Seyl.