That’s (Almost) All, Folks

And so I wrap up my very last day interning at the Aerospace Corporation. I had to say goodbye to all the graduate students, post-doctoral workers, and managers I had developed such strong bonds with over the past 3 weeks. I don’t want to say I was a sopping mess at the end of it all, but if I were the type to wear mascara, it would have been running at the end of today. I brought donuts to sweeten the blow and thank everyone for allowing me to shadow them in lab, but realized that since Dr. Harmon is on an RDO (Regular Day Off, meaning she doesn’t come in every other Friday) and Geena is part time and thus only arrives on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I couldn’t bring in donuts on just one day because I would then miss the opportunity to thank one of them. Thus, much to everyone in my office’s dismay, I brought in donuts on Thursday AND Friday. Problem Solved. Donuts seemed fitting after all, since Joe left me with an interesting proverb to send off the day: Materials Science is the different between bread, a tortilla, and a donut. It’s not what each is made of that differs, but rather the process to make them all.

Sweet-talk aside, I must say I really, REALLY enjoyed my time at Aerospace. In the labs, in the office, in the cafeteria, everywhere. In school, if us students happen to not like a particular subject, we are often told to just “tough it” and grind out the work for a class, regardless of what we think of it. Well, at Aerospace, I was given something more valuable than any amount of currency or security clearance: a glimpse of the end. With a job, there is no more “toughing it out” until the next phase. You’re there. You get to do what you’re there to do. Solve problems, innovate and invent. Whatever awaits at the end of the tunnel serves as the basis of what you will be doing for the rest of your career, should you choose not to switch. Me? I’m just glad that this tunnel ends with something I enjoy, should I choose to travel down it.

Pry it from my Cold, Gloved Hands

And so today, I start my last week at Aerospace. Man, I really don’t like typing that. Marianne unfortunately called in sick today. Feel better Dr. Harmon! Today, I reported DIRECTLY to Joe in the lab (By the way, I figured it out. His badge says interim worker, so I’m guessing that’s what he is.) Today, he’s testing at what load this little plug thing on the end of a cable detaches from the cord itself. The catch? We’re testing at a temperature of -130 degrees C! Do you know what that means? LIQUID NITROGEN!!! I got to put on the big blue gloves and help fill some canisters full of the stuff, so we could fill a cryogenic unit and keep this cord nice and frosty whilst we tear it apart (scientifically, of course.) Thing is, it takes about 15 minutes to cool down the cryo unit to the right temperature, or heat it up so it’s safe to open. That leaves about half an hour per trial of downtime, where I can’t leave the desk and walk away from the unit so we aren’t wasting liquid nitrogen by keeping this thing perfectly cooled whilst we wander the halls. However, there also isn’t much to do involving the experiment itself; so I find myself volunteering as a shop-boy and fetching tools for people working at benches around me.

Apparently the CEO is going to visit the lab come Thursday. THE CEO! That’s pretty awesome on one hand, but nerve-racking at the other. I hear Dr. Wanda Austin is a very nice lady from every source, but at the same time, AAH! Here I am, most likely the lowest on the pecking order, possibly going to be in the same room as the Chief Executive Officer of the company. If you need some context, the office space I get to use is comprised of 5 or 6 offices which are in turn connected to a “bay,” or large room, that is then connected to the hallway. Since the only space available for a desk for Tait, a grad student, was in the bay, he’s jokingly said to be the “secretary” for our office space. However, my temporary desk is in the corner of the bay space, near Tait’s desk. Thus, we joke that I’m not even a normal secretary, I’m the secretary’s secretary! In reality, I’m extremely happy to have a desk (and permission to be in the labs, a temporary badge, awesome bosses, etc.), but the point nonetheless stands.

So, here I am. Secretary squared, off to meet the head of the firm in 1 (2?) days. Someone remind me to shine my shoes…

Too Excited about String

Today, excitement came in spurts. I started off the morning prepping the last of Dr. Harmon and me’s ink sample, and leaving it in a nice, dry place to cure over the weekend. From there, since Dr. Harmon had a high-sensitivity conference call and Geena the Legend wasn’t in, I wandered around the lab, looking for places I could lend a hand. I ended up carrying peoples’ samples for a couple minutes at a time as they made the pedestrian commute from one lab room to another. Eventually, my path crossed with a tour group from Hawthorne High, and so I ended up tailing them and subsequently observing a solar cell testing facility and a cool-looking telescope that apparently can accidentally function as a highly destructive, solar powered beam director if you calibrate it EXTREMELY poorly with its dome (and I mean VERY, VERY badly calibrated.) I went and ate some overpriced sushi burrito thing from a food truck since the cafeteria was closed, and afterwards basically sat in the office, formatting my presentation and looking for something to do.

And then it happened. As I formatted my title slide for about the 80 millionth time, a member of our office pod walked over, and asked if I were busy. His name was Allen, a middle-aged man with a PhD from Caltech. His lab, however… I can’t look at the world the same way again.

Carbon nanotubes. A microscopic structure, formed from one of the world’s most abundant elements, whose properties include a conductivity on par with that of copper, a density about 9 times lighter than most metals, and a flexibility unrivaled by any metal. It can be spooled into wire to direct current, made into a sheet to form spaceship parts, and curved into a honeycomb structure to bear massive weights on one side whilst retaining amazing flexibility on the other. From my eyes, it’s magic. Allen’s lab and what he’s working on seems as if it will change the future of industry. I’ve been Googling articles on it for the past half hour, and the wonder still hasn’t worn off. Dad, if you’re reading, THIS is why I had a stupid grin on my face in the car. I’ve found it. I’ve finally stumbled on that one field that “clicks” with you, that sticks its hand down your throat and pulls the excitement, motivation, and drive straight out of your stomach. I don’t think the indication has ever been this clear before, and I don’t believe that it will ever again. I just pray that it stays until I’m actually ready to go to work.

It’s Like a Shinier Hawaii’i

Today, the totally thinkable happened. The moment every one of us has been awaiting with inevitable dread, the one task every intern will begrudgingly take on at some point in time: I had to sweep the floors.

I know, I know, not very exciting, but the reason why is. In the Aerospace Corporation, there’s a system of classification for management. That is, you get a level depending on how high up you are in the company. A department head is a level 3, and a general manager is a level 5. The president of the company is level 7. The vice presidents, you ask? Well, they’re level 6, and they’re coming to tour our lab on Friday. It’s not technically a safety inspection, but if we leave our space anything close to the at-times tornado-like it’s at currently, and we might as well smash the metaphorical egg on our face before they walk in the door. Hence, this week, I’ve been mopping like a madman, sorting like a sociopath, and all activities in between. A notable activity of the day had me pushing a rolling cart full of approximately 350 lb of Geena’s samples, so I could unload them at another lab who had much more space.

I did have one interesting thing I did today, however. A lab director, Gaura took me on a tour of the facilities she was in charge of. From a laser that could, “probably drill through you in half an hour or so (if it was left on!), to a CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposition) tube that makes near-perfect graphene layers, the machinery she had in there was admittedly pretty intense from the start. What impressed me the most, however, was the dry lab. Since lithium is very sensitive to moisture in the air, people who work on batteries often work in humidity-controlled rooms such as these. The door alone made a statement; you have to enter through an airlock to help control moisture sneaking into the room, each door to the lock being half a foot thick. And once you’re inside… there’s nothing quite like it. From the moment the airlock opens, you can FEEL your lips chapping, and talking will dry out your mouth in a matter of seconds. It’s advised to stay in the dry lab for no longer than an hour at a time, so the surrounding air doesn’t begin to pull water out from your skin and cause full-body irritation. Thankfully I was only inside for 15 minutes, but stepping out even then, into the much warmer and wetter hallway, made me feel as if I had just stepped off a plane onto the shore of some tropical island. Maybe the Level 6’s should drop by the dry lab before coming to OUR lab. A feeling of sunny bliss would go a long way in not getting my supervisors in trouble.

Geena: The Woman, The Prodigy, and Overall Legend

The old phrase, “Out of the frying pan, into the fire” is proving to be applicable to my work situation. As of Friday, I have played a part in 4 different experiments under 3 different people. The first had to do with measuring how long a certain type of ink took to cure, or harden, as a function of how thick the paint had been applied to a surface; so basically I got to watch paint dry in THE most scientific way possible. This work was under Dr. Harmon, and was my introduction into the Aerospace lab environment.

My next experiment I helped out with was under who I consider to be my direct mentor, Geena, a grad student at UCLA who additionally works 3 days a week at Aerospace. When I first met Geena, she was running off of 3 hours of sleep and a severe under-dose of coffee as a result of flying in from New Orleans the weekend before. During our first conversation, her mouth seemed to be outrunning her brain, as she would discuss her thesis and research so quickly to the point where she would run out of words to say and thus stand there, gazing listlessly past me into space, before she launched confidently back into her description of her research. After she had recovered from her travel and settled into the comforts of work, however, it became apparent as to why older researchers and supervisors in the building described her work as “revolutionary” and “innovative.” Geena’s work involved the production of high-grade mirrors for use in optics in spacecraft. Her process consists of the production of an essentially perfectly flat surface on a composite, and then using that surface as a “stamp” to create less perfect (yet still really good) flat, mirrored surfaces. My role in this was to make these “perfect” surfaces, and as many as I could. This week alone, I probably made about 15 template composites.

The two other projects I worked on were under a man named Joseph Severino, in the same lab group. I haven’t asked if he’s a grad student or a permanent worker, because he’s already had to refuse to tell me about some other projects he’s been working on due to “classification issues,” and I don’t want to probe. Thus, Joe is an enigma. One project that had to do with measuring how much load a certain type of carbon fiber could take had me entering data values into a computer about the fiber as Joe set up the experiment.

Another project under Joe had me using computer algorithms to detect flaws in a honeycomb-type of surface, so that he could analyze the flaws and discover what caused them.

This whole week has been extremely busy, with me hopping lab-to-lab, but the whole experience has been amazing. Many times I’ve walked into a machine shop to find whomever needed help raising their hands to the sky as if to thank some divine power, and Geena once exclaimed “These are gonna be the best 3 weeks of my life!” When I showed her the composites. It does say something about the job, however, if whomever I’m helping is so grateful for it. Does this mean everyone in this workplace is nice? Or does it mean everyone is cracking under the stress of having so much to do, to the point where a non-technically trained intern is a gift from the gods?

The First Day, or What I Can Tell You

An internship at an aerospace corporation is about as typical as it can get (I mean, the firm is called “The Aerospace Corporation”, emphasis on “the”) and atypical as it can get. I spent the first 10 minutes of my experience in the visitor’s center of the complex. By visitor’s center, I mean a cozy room with a security guard who hums to himself while filling out non-escort badge authorizations. Shortly after, I was picked up by Dr. Harmon(who insisted I call her Marianne), and taken for a short tour around the site. The vibe was approximately the perfect mix of military base and college campus, with bright eyed engineers smiling and waving at me as stoic-faced Air Force officers walked briskly past them in full uniform. I was about 5 puns and a handful of laughs into my walk-and-talk with Dr Harmon before we happened upon the door to her office, and it hit me across the head like a baseball bat that this is my mentor. I had just made a joke about a glue experiment putting someone in a “sticky situation” to my mentor.

The first meeting of the day was a simple one, security briefing, don’t stick thumb drives where they shouldn’t go, if you see a bright red paper labelled sensitive, do not read it, the usual for a federally-funded space exploration institution. Our safety meeting, however, showed me the most of what I was to learn today. As we walked into the room written on the email as to where to be for briefing, we discovered that there was, in fact, not a safety briefing in this room, but rather some propulsion talk that I both did not understand and should not be at. This seemed typical for Dr. Harmon, as she slightly furrowed her brow, but went right to searching for the correct room number. As Marianne and I exited the room and went to print out the email mentioning the incorrect room number, the fire alarm went off. Rather than evacuate immediately, she patiently waited for her document to fully print out, THEN made a quick getaway towards the building’s exit.

Thankfully, such an alarm was false, and the beeping stopped after 30 seconds or so. My mentor, however, barely seemed to lose pace, as she did an about face nearly as soon as the alarm failed to meet its quota of ear-shattering annoyance, and paced back up the stairs.

Eventually, we found our way to the correct room, 11 minutes behind schedule, and sat down as the safety instructor stated, “So, yes, follow these instructions, or you could die.” The instructions in question were later forwarded to me via email.  But that moment.. death, secrecy, and imminent deadlines were the 3 things rushing through my head, and I hadn’t even seen my lab yet.