How I spent my summer: three Mizzou engineers recap their summer internships
Forrest Meyen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“Welcome to the no-sleep zone,” was the greeting Forrest Meyen received on his first day as an intern in the MIT Summer Research Program. It might have been intimidating if it meant early mornings and late nights slumped over a desk in a cramped cubicle. But luckily, though Meyen confirms he didn’t sleep much, it wasn’t a bad thing.
“You didn’t want to sleep or you’d miss out,” he said.
The MSRP funded 44 people to work in various labs at MIT. In addition to the research aspects of the internship, the program featured weekly research presentations by MIT faculty, weekly seminars and social outings such as barbecues and visits to Boston.
“Every Thursday morning we’d read scholarly papers on any sort of research, and a group would give a presentation on the research and then the MIT professor who did the research would come in,” Meyen said. “It was cool because you were presenting their paper. All the students would grill you, test you to make sure you knew it.”
Although his area of expertise is mechanical engineering, Meyen presented a paper on the analysis of stone masonry structures. The group also built a playground for the Cambridge Community Center as a community service project.
“It was a lot of fun, but we also got to give back,” Meyen said.
Add all of these activities to the research Meyen did and it’s a wonder he got any sleep at all. Meyen worked with MIT professor Dava Newman in the aeronautics/astronautics department’s Man Vehicle Laboratory, which focused on human factors in space. The researchers studied motion sickness, the vestibular apparatus in the head and telerobotics. The lab even had a human centrifuge.
Meyen worked in a section of the lab dealing with extravehicular activities (EVA) in space, specifically space suit design and testing. He tested pressure suits that spy and U2 reconnaissance plane pilots wear in order to fly at altitudes of more than 70,000 feet. Astronauts wear the same type of suit, but with added outer protection garments.
“One of the greatest challenges in pressurized suits in EVAs and high-altitude planes is that they’re stiff when pressurized,” Meyen said. ‘That’s something you don’t want if you’re walking on the moon.”
Meyen’s team worked with a robot modeled after a ninety-fifth percentile male, approximately 6 feet 2 inches tall. It was designed to test NASA’s Extravehicular Mobility Unit, which is the suit NASA currently uses for space walks.
“The robot had sensors that measure torque and position in 12 different joint movements,” Meyen said. “One side of the body was fully articulated.”
Using the sensors, the robot collected data based on the angles created by the torque and position of the limbs.
“The data analysis was interesting because that was the first time this type of information had been collected on that suit even though it’s been flying for years,” Meyen said.
Meyen also worked with inertial sensors on his own body and programmed the robot to track his motions in order to control it in real time. He didn’t get to finish the project, but said the goal would be to control the robot in 3-D. That way, space suit testers could assess space suit mobility for different tasks simply by letting the sensors track their natural movements for the robot to mimic while collecting data. This would eliminate the need to write complex software to guide the robot through each new task.
Meyen said the research on inertial sensors could translate into solutions for earthbound problems too. He said the sensors could help people with cerebral palsy or other mobility impairments.
Meyen said he first heard about Newman’s research five years ago in an issue of Popular Science magazine.
“Working with her over the summer was a surreal experience,” he said.
“I had an exciting project and made a lot of really good friends.”
Jeff Piersol, Sandia National Laboratories
There were some things Jeff Piersol planned for when he accepted a summer internship with Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.
“I went there expecting hard work and expecting demands, and they came,” he said.
Then there were things he wasn’t expecting. Like the driving range on base, which he frequented with his coworkers as a “pre-lunch” activity.
Piersol, a senior electrical engineering major, wrote software to model and simulate a circuit for Sandia’s Mixed-Signal ASIC/SoC Products Department.
“My manager gave me one project and said run with it, and I was like, really?” he said and smiled. “So that’s what I did. It was a really neat project that used all of my skills.
“I got to do software, which I enjoy, but I couldn’t have done it without my classes and my degree,” he said. “The internship was a really good fit; I think that was key.”
Piersol said the internship taught him a lot about modeling and the process of design. But he said the biggest thing he came home with was a sense of drive.
“Sandia is a world-class research facility,” he said. “They have geniuses in every field there. Just seeing them work is really cool and it’s a vision of what that might look like in the future.
“A ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality definitely came out of it,” he said.
When Piersol wasn’t working hard or playing on the driving range before lunch, he and his coworkers took trips to the Carlsbad Caverns and hiked in the mountains. He said he grew close to his two roommates, also interns for Sandia.
“The internship was really cool, but additionally, the experience of going somewhere else for the summer was a foretaste of life, going somewhere you don’t know anyone else,” he said. “It was a lot of fun to spend the summer with guys I didn’t know and get to know them.”
Piersol said he highly recommends seeking internships outside of one’s immediate surroundings.
“I wish it was pushed more to get out and go somewhere,” he said. “I don’t think people realize the opportunity you can find out there if you’re looking for it.”
Tyler Chlapek, Center for Space Nuclear Research
Although he kept busy with trips to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Tetons National Park and Las Vegas, MU graduate Tyler Chlapek did find some time to do research during his internship with the Center for Space Nuclear Research.
“It was more than I could have hoped for in an internship,” he said. “I worked with some of the people who are at the top of the game, some really good engineers.”
Chlapek conducted base-level research for the center, which is based in Idaho Falls, Ida. He studied the feasibility of using radioactive decay to propel rockets into space. He ran simulations and researched materials and chemicals to test the theory that condensed atmospheric gases could act as propellant for rockets.
“Plutonium-238 is the power source for electric generators on spacecraft,” Chlapek said. “It has been used since the 1960s on nearly 30 spacecraft.” Chlapek said that the remaining amount of plutonium-238 is very low.
“After the next launch, we have no means besides nuclear power to take spacecraft past Mars,” he said. “So we pretty much have to go to nuclear energy.”
Chlapek ultimately concluded that the concept he researched would not work. But it wasn’t too big a disappointment. Chlapek began another project constructing a mission using only nuclear thermal rockets, and is continuing it as his master’s research at MU. He said he would like to return to CSNR again next summer as an intern.
Although Chlapek didn’t know anyone when he began the internship, the CSNR staff made sure the interns fit in.
“They work really hard to match personalities,” Chlapek said. “And they made sure we knew what was going on around town.”
The staff also planned barbecues for the interns and Idaho National Lab employees and provided training conducted by a NASA employee.
Chlapek said he learned a lot from the internship.
“Each research group was very independent,” he said. “There was no box to be outside of; they just gave us a prompt and said go.
“It was a good thing; there was no right answer. It helped us be more creative and led to a wider variety of solutions,” he said.