When Professor and Department Chair Michael Wong sent an email to students about NASA’s Pathways Intern Employment Program, which allows students to explore career options across multiple areas within the organization, then-junior Naina Noorani jumped at the opportunity.
“The application is only open for five days,” the senior chemical engineer explains. “And it’s highly competitive. But it is a great program.”
When she was called to do an interview with NASA, she went to the Center for Career Development and did a mock interview. She says that experience allowed her to organize her thoughts and better present her accomplishments.
She got the internship and spent last year working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
“The program is designed to let you rotate through three areas of NASA,” she explained. “And the three main tracks are in engineering, flight operations, and business. I worked on the engineering track, on projects that were about improving space technology.”
Noorani took a year off to participate in the program, working 40 hours each week at NASA. In addition to work projects, she also attended on-site lectures and participated in events with her fellow Pathways members, including meeting astronauts and flight directors, touring the space food and neutral buoyancy labs, and watching the movie “Apollo 13” in Mission Control. She said that the work ethic and collaborative values Rice instills in its students were a tremendous benefit to her success in the program, and the rigorous coursework she’d been through at Rice served her well on assigned projects.
“I loved how hands-on every project I worked on was,” she said. “For one of them, I was developing aspects of a power plant for Mars. The idea is to figure out how to turn Martian dust into a viable fuel option. Rocket fuel is really heavy, so we can use Martian dust and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create fuel to bring astronauts from Mars back to Earth. I never thought I’d work on something like that.”
For Noorani, the internship was also an opportunity to do things she said she doesn’t get to do in her regular coursework, like wiring, soldering, machining and 3D printing.
“As a chemical engineering major, we learn the fundamentals of reactor design and thermodynamics, but we don’t get to build things with our own hands. At NASA, I had the chance to do that and to be part of relevant projects, like working on the water support side of the International Space Station, looking at ways to recycle urine and sweat into drinking water.”
As Noorani is settling into her senior year, she has just received a job offer from NASA. After graduation, she’ll start her career in the Johnson Space Center’s Power and Propulsion division. She’s not quite sure of her assignment yet, but she’s excited that Pathways led to the opportunity.
“A lot of Pathways participants receive an offer,” she said, “because the program is designed to show you what careers at NASA are like. I am really looking forward to going back after graduation. This was really the best thing I’ve ever done.”