ENTRY POINT! Interns Tour Capitol Hill, Meet with Congressional Staff

University of Notre Dame senior Ashley Nashleanas has a long list of accomplishments about which to be proud.

She graduated from high school with a 4.0 grade point average, was a member of the National Honor Society, and even represented her country in Athens, Greece, as one of 45 members of the 2004 United States Paralympics swim team.

But if you ask her to identify the achievement that brings her the most pride, Nashleanas will tell you about fulfilling a dream this summer when she worked at NASA.

Over the course of 10 weeks, Nashleanas completed the internship at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md, through ENTRY POINT!, a AAAS program that provides competitive internships for science and engineering students with disabilities at leading companies and government research agencies across there country.

Rep. Steve King ( R-Iowa) and Ashley Nashleanas

In late July, Nashleanas joined three other ENTRY POINT interns on a tour of Capitol Hill, which included visits to congressional offices.

Other ENTRY POINT! interns who met with congressional staff were Susannah Calhoun, a biology major at Smith College; Mary Rose Fertitta-Zepp, a graduate student in mathematics at Rutgers University; and Shawn Knutson, a manufacturing engineering technology major at Northern Illinois University. During their meetings, the interns encouraged their congressional representatives to support the federal science budget and raised awareness about the ENTRY POINT! program.

While at NASA's heliophysics department, Nashleanas, who is blind, applied her ongoing research as a chemistry student at Notre Dame. She helped the agency evaluate new software that can be used with adaptive technologies that assist scientists with visual impairments. For example, she helped evaluate a software program that connects sound pitch to data points to help scientists who are blind understand a line graph.

"I've always had a dream to work at NASA, but I never told anyone," said Nashleanas. "It was an extra thrill to help them develop resources that might help scientists with visual impairments thrive in the laboratory and work on ground-breaking projects."

During her visit to Capitol Hill, Nashleanas met with U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who, although he doesn't represent Nashleanas's district, was thrilled to have an Iowa resident working at NASA.

After agreeing with Nashleanas that NASA should develop another lunar mission, King said that NASA "should go far beyond that," and that he wished he would be able to go with her. King said that the exploration of space is like the Lewis and Clark's expedition in the early 1800s; it passed through his district on its way to discovering the "great unknown," he said. And when it comes to pursuit of scientific knowledge, he added, space exploration is "what's next."

Nashleanas said that Notre Dame is extremely helpful in ensuring that she is able to thrive on campus. It has an active disability affairs office that has helped her obtain accommodations like Braille labels on laboratory bottles, battery-operated pipettes, and special computer programs.

"Visual impairment certainly does not prevent someone from thriving in the laboratory," said Nashleanas. "We just learn differently."

Currently in its 13th 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, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Shell, and now Infosys.

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 the AAAS Education and Human Resources Department, said that the internships match the student's desire for engaging work with the employer's need for an expanded pool of technical talent.

"Because there is sharp competition for skilled workers, employers are frequently willing to make accommodations so talented scientists and engineers can work in their offices and laboratories," said Rodriguez.

Kathleen Powell, a special programs manager at NASA who oversees interns from ENTRY POINT! and several other internships, said that her agency is eager to invite all of its employees into the "NASA family" and watch them thrive.

"All interns, but ENTRY POINT! interns especially, always seem to excel in their NASA work environment," said Powell. "They have the incredible ability to fulfill all of their goals, set both by their superiors and themselves. It's a testament not only to their abilities, but also pure drive and perseverance."

Powell added that "it's an easy choice for NASA when determining if they want to continue to partner with ENTRY POINT!," and she hopes they will increase the number of interns next year.

Since its founding, ENTRY POINT! has placed more than 400 students in internships around the country, many of whom have gone on to careers in science and engineering.