Guest Blog: David Stack

Tomorrow, Doug heads off to Kennedy Space Center for the GRAIL Tweetup. But we used to live near Goddard Space Flight Center and popped over for the monthly model-rocket launches a few times.

This week’s guest blogger had the fantastic opportunity to spend the summer at NASA Goddard. His post is especially welcome in the post-shuttle days we face, for David Stack makes it clear that NASA has been doing much, much more than the space shuttle program. Stack studied cholera. Earth sciences of all types, it turns out, benefit from what we can accomplish through space exploration.

David Stack is a graduate student at Chapman University pursuing an M.S. in Hazards, Global and Environmental Change. His main interest is in understanding how natural and human systems interact and influence each other.


David at the entrance to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

How did I get here? I found myself thinking this question on more than one occasion this summer. Whether it was on the National Mall gazing up at the Washington Monument as the sun set in the background or driving through the gates at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, it was still hard to think I’m here. For me, this summer was a dream and a dream come true.

As one of the first students in the new degree in Hazards, Global and Environmental Change at Chapman University, I have had the opportunity to take some fascinating classes taught by amazing professors, the first of which was taught by Dr. Dimitar Ouzonov. A few days into the class, I found out that he not only worked at Chapman as a professor, but he was also a scientist at NASA. I inquired about any internship opportunities, and he forwarded me a couple of links for a few programs.

One program that looked very promising was the DEVELOP internship program at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Now you may be wondering why I would drive (yes, I drove) all the way across the country for a summer internship, but my reasoning is simple. Goddard is the largest organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to increasing knowledge of Earth, the solar system, and the universe in the United States. Why settle only for the moon when you can fly among the stars?

David visits the Washington Monument

Driving across the country took about five days, but with the company of my brother, Jonathan, the hours flew by. Finally, we arrived in Maryland. With only one day left before starting at NASA, I decided to take it easy and visit Washington, DC. Naturally, I visited the  National Air and Space Museum.

As with any job, the first day is always one of the most nerve wracking. Figuring out where to go, which papers to sign, and, most importantly, where to find lunch can be overwhelming. Luckily for me, there were six other DEVELOP interns in the same position so it was easy to make friends quickly.

Because DEVELOP is a training and development program in which students work on Earth science research projects, each of us was given a large amount of responsibility. We were mentored by science advisors from NASA and partner agencies, but the problem solving and challenges we faced were generally our own to overcome. As the team leader on our project, Connecting Environmental Observations with Cholera Outbreaks in Bangladesh, I had the opportunity to lead my other two teammates, Avery Sandborn and Paul Widmeyer, toward finished products we were all proud of.

My team was tasked with investigating the link between cholera outbreaks and environmental parameters in Bangladesh. The idea is that, by connecting observations of the diarrheal disease and space-based datasets on environmental conditions, better models of disease outbreaks can be constructed. Specifically, our study focused on satellite measurements of sea surface temperature, chlorophyll-a concentrations (an estimator for ocean algae), and rainfall in the Bay of Bengal. These observations were then analyzed with clinical and ground data using Excel and Google Earth. We put in many hours to make the project a success, and we definitely felt a sense of accomplishment at the end of the summer.

DEVELOP presentations, NASA Headquarters (Left to right: Paul Widmeyer, Dr. Dimitar Ouzonov, David Stack)

The project wasn’t the only way I occupied my time. Not only did I get to view the final shuttle launch via a live feed with hundreds of other NASA employees, but, as part of the DEVELOP internship program, I had many other opportunities. Highlights include a tour of the three-story clean room where the James Webb Space Telescope is being constructed, viewing the control room for Hubble Telescope, visiting the Center for Climate Simulation where the Discover supercomputer is housed, attending Goddard Day, and listening to lectures given by an astronaut, a Nobel prize winner, and many scientists.

Employment, even a summer internship, at NASA is hard work. Every day is filled with new challenges that require tackling creative and real-world problems. For me, this experience was incredibly rewarding. I cannot think of a better way to have spent my summer. We just started classes at Chapman University last week, and I look forward to bringing what I have learned back to my peers and professors.

Dreaming about doing something is one thing. Being given the opportunity to actually live it—well, that’s something else entirely.


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