NASA’s new precipitation measurement satellite is scheduled to launch in 2013, and if all goes well, Maria Lyon will watch her handiwork go into orbit. As a summer intern at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, Lyon is taking one more step towards fulfilling her childhood dream of working for the space agency, with support from AAAS’s ENTRY POINT! program.
Lyon understands well how fleeting such opportunities can be. She has wanted to work for NASA since she was a child, and in high school, she got an internship at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, with the propulsion team. But the next year, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. With her hands locked by painful inflammation, her dream suddenly was in jeopardy.
Four years later, approaching her sophomore year at York College of Pennsylvania, Lyon has her condition under control and she’s back at Goddard working with safety and mission assurance engineers and with the propulsion unit again. She has helped to oversee transportation of different pieces of the Core Observatory spacecraft, part of NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement mission, in Goddard’s clean rooms, where very few interns go, as well as attaching equipment to the spacecraft’s propulsion tank.
Lyon was one of nine ENTRY POINT! interns who came to the Capitol recently to talk to their elected representatives about their work and the opportunities the program offers. She says ENTRY POINT! made it possible for her to get back on track to her dream job: “I don’t know if I could have worked at NASA this summer otherwise,” she says.
Started in 1996, ENTRY POINT! partners with agencies like NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and with companies like IBM, Merck, and Lockheed Martin, to place qualified and motivated students in 10-week summer internships. NASA’s Achieving Competence in Computer, Engineering and Space Science (ACCESS) program is its counterpart to ENTRY POINT!, a 15-year partnership that has placed 318 ENTRY POINT! students at NASA sites.
This summer, 33 interns are working around the country through ENTRY POINT!, discovering what it’s like to be a professional scientist and showing the research community their abilities and promise. The six interns closest to Washington joined in the visit to the Capitol on 18 July where they toured the historic building and met representatives from the districts where they live or study.
To meet the ENTRY POINT! interns is to meet a group of highly motivated, extremely intelligent graduate and undergraduate students working at some of the nation’s top research and engineering facilities. What’s less obvious is that they are members of one of the most underrepresented groups in science: people with disabilities.
The students live with conditions as diverse as ADHD, autism, and vision or hearing impairments, and as ENTRY POINT! interns they have earned opportunities that can be hard to come by. They also earn the chance to prove to the scientific community that they are as capable as anyone of doing elite work.
“AAAS can be an advocate by putting a student with disabilities in the mix,” says Richard Weibl, director of the AAAS Center for Careers in Science and Technology and, since June, director of the Project for Science, Technology and Disability. “ENTRY POINT! creates potential job opportunities for students with disabilities by opening the pipeline.”
Rheumatoid arthritis is an incurable condition that causes painful inflammation of the tissues in joints. At 17, Maria Lyon couldn’t close her hand into a fist or stand up for very long. It was hard for her to play on her soccer team and she couldn’t intern at NASA. But she’s had surgery on the swollen tendons in her hands to relieve some of the tension, and with further treatment and therapy, she has been able to manage the condition.
Her work this summer has impressed NASA staff. Goddard propulsion engineer Caitlin Bacha says Lyon has shown that “it really doesn’t matter what you’re limitations are. You can really do anything and she proves that everyday.” Bacha says Lyon has been an invaluable member of her team, doing unsupervised work on the propulsion tank when the rest of the group was busy and discovering errors in engineering drawings. Could Lyon work at Goddard full time? “Absolutely,” Bacha says.
Lyon told her ENTRY POINT! story to Molly Johnson, a legislative assistant to U.S. Representative Todd Russell Platts, who represents the Pennsylvania district where she goes to school. She was joined by fellow Goddard intern Brian Lee and Janie Nall, who manages NASA’s ACCESS program.
Nall stressed to Platt’s staff that, historically, 90% of ENTRY POINT! interns continue into science-related education or a career, something she says no other NASA program can match. More importantly, she said, it is NASA’s only recruitment and retention program for people with disabilities working in science and engineering.
The program has huge benefits for everyone at NASA, says Denna Lambert, manager of disability projects at Goddard.
“Working with someone with a disability is invaluable” for raising awareness, she says. “[Researchers are] able to get day-to—day, hands-on interactions with someone with a disability. A manager is able to see the student with skills, talents, and gifts first and would see the disability as secondary.”
Following the Capitol tour and the meetings with elected officials and congressional staff, the group gathered at AAAS headquarters for a reception, where they met other AAAS staff members. Kareem Dale, President Barack Obama’s special assistant for disability policy, also attended the reception and met the interns. After talking with them, Dale is arranging a visit to Goddard Space Flight Center to see the clean rooms and labs where Lyon and Lee work.
At the reception, the interns seemed energized by their visits on Capitol Hill and by Dale’s presence. Each of them knew the value an internship can have in pursuing a career, but the day had driven home another lesson: As scientists and engineers, they can make a significant impact both with their work and as representatives for current and future researchers with disabilities.
Learn more  about the AAAS ENTRY POINT! program.
Learn more  about NASA’s Achieving Competence in Computer, Engineering and Space Science (ACCESS) program.