Katie Browne is in her final weeks of an internship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Over the past 10 weeks, she has been part of a team of computer scientists and engineers designing robots to explore other planets.
But for Browne, a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno, computers are more than just a work tool—she credits them with enabling her to fulfill a dream to work at NASA.
Browne, who has cerebral palsy, said that her family bought her a new laptop when she was in third grade to help her take notes and compose writing assignments. After a couple times exploring the laptop’s features, she was hooked on computer science.
“Working with computers is a natural fit for me because it helped me get where I am and succeed,” said Browne, who secured her internship through ENTRY POINT!, a pioneering AAAS program for science and engineering students with disabilities, and ACCESS, the NASA-specific internship program within ENTRY POINT!.
Cerebral palsy is a disorder of the nervous system and frequently affects fine motor skills like writing.
Browne said that her work as NASA is used to design robots similar to the Mars Rover that can explore unknown terrain.
“I’m interested in robotics not only because it’s very challenging and interesting, but because robots are also used to help people with disabilities,” she said. “Maybe one of my robots will help someone someday.”
ENTRY POINT! provides competitive internships for science and engineering students with disabilities at leading companies and government research agencies across the country.
On 21 July, Browne, along with seven other ENTRY POINT! and ACCESS interns, went on a tour of Capitol Hill, which included a visit with the U.S. House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education to raise support for the federal science budget as well as raise awareness of the ENTRY POINT! program.
The visit took place as the federal government and other organizations in Washington, D.C., were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, landmark civil rights legislation which prohibits discrimination based on disabilities.
Marcy Gallo, professional staff member on the subcommittee, said that federal initiatives like the America Competes Act of 2007 and its ongoing 2010 reauthorization recognize that “to remain competitive, the U.S. must tap into its science and technology talent to make the next generation of discoveries.”
Gallo said the National Science Foundation (NSF) seeks to increase the involvement of underrepresented persons in science, which includes scientists with disabilities, by evaluating grants on the basis of scientific merit as well as it its impact on broadening the scientific workforce.
Just as the NSF provides incentives for grants that have a historically black college or university as collaborators, Gallo said she could envision an incentive to partner with institutions serving students with disabilities such as Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington, D.C.
Currently in its 14th year, ENTRY POINT! internships connect talented science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students with employers from around the country, including IBM, Lockheed Martin, Merck, NASA, NAVAIR, Google, Infosys, and the United States Department of Agriculture.
The internships are also helpful because the employers are able to meet the students’ needs for assistive technology and other accommodations. Mentors and students involved in the program often serve as ambassadors to the wider community.
Winnie Rodriguez, program associate in AAAS Education and Human Resources, said that the ENTRY POINT! internships are valuable because they meet employers’ need for a talented workforce while providing essential work exposures for students.
“The scientific and engineering workforce is incredibly competitive and to advance, networking and internships are absolutely critical,” said Rodriguez. “These internships provide that.”
She added that ENTRY POINT! brings its interns to Capitol Hill to show how “science policy affects the work they do in the laboratory and classroom.”
“As they did by pushing for the Americans with Disabilities Act, advocates worked hard so that persons with disabilities would be able to succeed,” said Rodriguez. “It’s important for them to know that they will be asked to do that for the next generation.”
Janie Nall, an education specialist who manages many of the underrepresented minority internships at Goddard Space Flight Center, said that the agency is always looking for talented scientists and engineers. Facing a throng of vacancies as the aging workforce enters retirement, NASA is ramping up efforts to recruit young professionals.
“We’re in need of talent, wherever it’s found, to maintain a viable workforce,” said Nall.
Nall said that her agency can also serve as a gateway for careers in other government agencies or industry.
“We’re thrilled when interns end up staying on with NASA for their careers, but we’re also encouraged when they find employment elsewhere,” said Nall. “It’s about creating opportunities.”
For Katie Browne, the plan is to graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno, in the fall, pursue a master’s degree and then, she hopes, to work for NASA.
This summer’s internship at NASA “provided me with an incredible experience and confirmed that you can do anything with enough motivation,” she said. “Life is short, and you have to live it and do what’s best for you.”