Group Dynamics: Alumna Brings 10 Smithies to NASA Center for Praxis Internships

Jackie Granillo ’19 was one of 10 Smithies interning at NASA's Ames Research Center this summer.

Erika Rodriguez ’06 was eager to draw more women to her workplace at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

So Rodriguez—who has been a research scientist at the space agency center in Silicon Valley since 2012—turned to a trusted source of smart, motivated women in STEM: her alma mater.

Working with Smith’s Picker Engineering Program and the Lazarus Center for Career Development—as well as prominent women research scientists at the NASA Ames Center—Rodriguez created summer internships for Smith students. Ten Smith students received Praxis funding to intern there this summer—the largest group of interns the college has working at any one site this year.

Renna Bushko ’18 said a longtime fascination with the space agency led her to apply for the Praxis-supported summer post. A neuroscience major who worked on a study of sleep deprivation with NASA researchers, Bushko said her experience at Ames was “amazing!”

“I’ve made so many connections,” she said.

Jackie Granillo ’19, a Smith engineering major who was part of a satellite test project at the Ames Research Center, agreed. “We have a real community here,” she said.

Other Smith students interning at the NASA center this summer were: Su Wei Heng ’17, Alejandra Ruiz ’17, Trang Thu Le ’17, Farida Sabry ’18, Jessica Feinberg ’18, Cindy Hu ’19 and Sarah Chu ’19.

The NASA interns were among 274 Smithies who received Praxis stipends for internships this summer in fields ranging from landscape architecture to language translation.

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Some of the Smithies interning at NASA this summer are (from back row right) Lucia Simova ’18, Trang Le ’17, Su Wei Heng ’17, Jessica Feinberg ’18, Farida Sabry ’18 and Alejandra Ruiz ’17.

On average, 400 Smith students are supported each summer and each academic year in Praxis-funded internships across the United States and abroad.

Deborah Wijnhoven, director of employee relations at the Lazarus Center for Career Development, said Rodriguez reached out to her last year about setting up summer internships at the space agency center.

“We have alumnae working with us each year on internships, but the opportunity at NASA was definitely a standout,” Wijnhoven said. “It builds excitement to send so many students to one location.”

Rodriguez said her NASA co-workers responded enthusiastically to the idea of supervising Smith students on a variety of projects at the research center. “I’ve had full support,” she said.

Rodriguez found low-cost housing for the Smith group within biking distance of the research campus and also arranged for training for the students at the start of their internships.

Lucia Simova ’18 said her summer project—helping to create a database that aims to foster collaboration between U.S. Navy personnel and NASA—was “a great real-life experience.”

“I’ve seen how my skills can apply to the real world,” said Simova, who is a computer science major at Smith. “And I’ve had access to amazing resources. I’ve been to colloquiums every week where you meet people working on different projects.”

Simova plans to use what she’s learned during her internship when she travels to Hungary to study computer programming this fall.

Bushko says she will incorporate her research on sleep deprivation into a Smith special studies course on immunology this fall.

“This experience really helped me network,” said Bushko, who plans to pursue a career in medicine. “I found I enjoyed the clinical side—interacting with the patients in the study—more than I thought I would.”

For her part, Rodriguez said it was rewarding to have so many young women working at the NASA center this summer.

“Silicon Valley is a mecca of opportunity, and women need to have more of a presence here,” Rodriguez said. “The Smith students really made this work!”