Journal of a NASA Intern Part 1: Grief, Joy, and DEVELOP

Pictured: My grandfather in the top left and my grandmother beside him.

It was precisely 2 years, 4 months, and 2 days ago that I lost one of the most important people in my life. I think most people talk about their grandfather that way, and I don’t purport to be a special case in the grand scheme of human suffering, but he was the special case in human excellence. A pianist since he could properly move his hands, he’d dedicated his life to the mastery of jazz piano. A childhood filled with toys (of which he spoiled me rotten) would never compare to the year he performed a jazzy rendition of the Birthday Song for me.

Yes, I cried.

But so much more than a brilliant musician, he was also a brilliant human. He was just as likely to give you a sharp line about the pursuit of intellectualism as he was to make a bad pun. (And yes, there were many bad puns.)

Above all else, he valued thought. He valued reflection and thinking about the world without bias. I was getting lost in his library as a little girl, reading old chemistry textbooks and pretending I knew so much more than I did. And when the solar eclipse of August 21, 2017 rolled around, he and the rest of the family packed up to travel to middle-of-nowhere Illinois so that we could marvel at the wonders of the natural world, and beyond.

856 days gone, and I still think I see him sitting in his favorite chair when I walk into the living room.

I know you’re here to learn about NASA internships, but the backstory here is important, because I never fashioned myself a real scientist and I certainly never fashioned myself as “NASA potential”. But when I happened to see a newsletter from my school mentioning NASA’s DEVELOP program, I thought about how it would be a disservice to my grandfather not to seek out new horizons and dedicate myself to the pursuit of knowledge. It was in his honor that I applied to DEVELOP, and when I got my acceptance email, my very first thought was that I knew he would have been proud.

[The writer pauses here to go wipe her eyes and blow her nose.]

Now, as I enter my third term of the DEVELOP program as well as my first term as a NASA intern proper, I have a little bit more faith in my ability to do good work for this company that has meant so much to me, to my family, and to my grandfather.

Dale Kriner, 1950-2019

Tip #1: Go with the path that feels right, even if it’s a long shot. Especially if it’s a long shot.

I went into NASA with very little concrete technical skill, and honestly, not a whole lot of concrete scientific knowledge, either. I applied for a project that just so happened to be everything I was passionate about: human-wildlife conflict in Southern Africa. I sold myself on pretty much passion alone; I told my interviewer that this was the cause to which I was ready to devote my life. I told her I was willing to learn whatever I needed to do my best work.

I’m sure some other things helped, too. I did have SOME background in GIS, and I had a strong internship just prior that used ArcGIS to map whooping crane migrations, which overlapped technically with this project mapping elephant movements. Beyond that, I have a really strong background in project management, with impressive figures to match. I tell people that 90% of my NASA experience came down to luck, and while I do think there’s a lot of truth to that, it also does me a disservice to pretend like I had nothing valuable to offer going into the program.

Tip #2: Be honest with yourself about strengths, as well as potential areas of growth.

Especially if you’re choosing to follow in my footsteps and apply for DEVELOP, it’s important to be honest about what you bring, as well as what you can gain. The program is aptly named; they seek out people who they feel have something left to learn. Show them that you are capable, and express that you are excited. That would be my “magic recipe” for earning a spot in the DEVELOP program. Well, that and an interest in remote sensing.

People ask me often how I ended up at NASA when I’m not studying aeronautics or engineering; DEVELOP is the answer. There are several NASA internships that focus on communications or project management or any other host of non-technical job descriptions for physics-phobic students. However, I don’t think I would have stood a chance at getting these internships without the 20 weeks I spent with DEVELOP. Not only did it bolster my technical ability and sharpen my soft skills, but it also gave me a unique confidence when interviewing with NASA personnel. I had already worked with, laughed with, and even impressed their colleagues. DEVELOP was the critical component of helping me overcome imposter syndrome.


There will be more blog posts to come and they will include more tips and tricks for landing an internship at NASA, so be sure to follow along, especially if you want to learn more about what I’m doing for NASA this fall and how my internship progresses this term.


laughing at maps and other tales of a distressed undergrad researcher

It was about this time last week that I stared at a blank Word document, wanting to write more about my research experience but knowing that nothing I said would be genuine. Because honestly, I had hit a wall, and I had spent several days feeling anxious about the research itself and how little I had done to make any progress.

I reached out to a scientist who works at Wood Buffalo National Park to inquire about any location data they might have that they would be willing to share with me, and she responded quickly, sending me a trove of published data in the form of excel spreadsheets.

In the first spreadsheet I opened, there were 18 columns of information and 165,542 rows. At its most basic, I was looking at tens of thousands of data points, and most of the information was coded in language that made absolutely no sense to me.

So, I did the most logical thing. I quickly exited out of the spreadsheet and went about my day, trying my best not to think about it.

But this internship is the work I have always wanted to do, and not only that, but it’s also fulfilling a graduation requirement that is exceptionally difficult for me to fulfill otherwise. So when the date for my weekly check in with my research advisor was suddenly looming far too close for comfort, I finally buckled down and opened the spreadsheet back up, determined to pull something useful from it.

So I started with the things I knew. Okay – these are definitely dates and times, that’s useful and easy to understand. Let’s see how far this data goes back. I had date from April 2010 to October 2018. And this label, BirdID, had to mean the individual from which the data point was taken. There are 62 different IDs listed, so all of these data points only belong to 62 birds. And – oh – there’s a document here that actually clarifies what all these other things mean!

It wasn’t long before I was able to put together that I was looking at the location data over a period of several years from a total of 62 birds, and not only that, but this data spanned the entirety of their year, so much of it was pulled from the Texas Gulf Coast site as well as their migrations to and fro. But as I loaded this information into QGIS, just to visualize what I was looking at, I had to have a bit of a laugh:

Look at all those chickens!

This felt pretty useless to me. It didn’t reveal much of anything about factors for habitat selection. There was way too much data, and it was incredibly overwhelming. So I took a step back, and had to think about the data in a different way.

What information can I pull out of this by isolating different data points?

I started with the obvious. I filtered out all of the data points from the Gulf Coast and the migratory paths so that I could just look at what the researchers had deemed the “summering grounds”, AKA the site we were trying to specifically study. The problem here is that the data is still incredibly all over the place, but I remembered that there is a way to estimate these locations based on the use of kernel density measurements. We’ll leave that for another day; what else?

The biggest problem was that even after all of this filtering, I was still looking at over 64,000 data points. It was a huge glob of data on the map that made any reasonable conclusions impossible to make. But luckily, this data includes times and dates for each point. So perhaps the answer is to animate the data; make it move so that it follows individual birds over time, not just plotting each data point as if it was a separate individual bird.

My research advisor was excited at the prospect of this idea, and even told me that she had never used that functionality of ArcGIS. To be fair, I haven’t either, so I’ll be spending my upcoming week in research learning exactly how to do this. My advisor also suggested that I take a look at the migratory corridor to see if it changes with any significance. With my research growing ever closer to the dreamt-up ideal of research I did as a Freshman, I can feel myself becoming a better student, a more passionate academic, and hopefully a soon-to-be world class researcher.

As I regaled friends of my woes during the tough parts, a good friend assured me, “If you knew what you were doing, it wouldn’t be research.” I suppose that’s true. And especially as an undergrad, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of pressure for me to be doing anything groundbreaking right now. I’m learning the tools of the trade, and dipping my toes into actual research before I take the plunge in grad school. So maybe in the upcoming weeks I won’t be so hard on myself if I haven’t figured out everything by first glance.

into new worlds: research on whooping cranes begins

Yesterday I finally had the privilege of sitting down with my research supervisor and learning about the specifics of the work I would be doing. I will be working with data on the Wood Buffalo Cranes, whose population numbers 505. They migrate annually from their nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast where they escape for the winter. Their niche is narrow, meaning that there is only a select amount of habitat that they can occupy and thrive in, and that habitat is threatened by things like climate change and other human disturbances. But, if we can use data to determine what it is about these specific sites that allows the cranes to thrive, we can help expand their habitats by engineering other land that can support them. The team has previously done a lot of research on the site in Texas, but it is my initial thinking that the site in Canada will be the more interesting site to study as that is where they nest, which is one of the more vulnerable parts of an organism’s lifetime.

To think that the work I do might contribute meaningfully to the conservation and protection of an endangered species is overwhelming. I am bursting at the seams with excitement and passion for this project, and I can’t wait to see what comes of it. I feel that this is a step towards the work I am meant to spend my life doing. I can’t help but recall those late nights in my freshman year at Arizona State, where I was nervous of the decisions I had made an unsure of where my life was headed. In my head, I was playing the role of a respected researcher, describing her work on a podcast:

“This is Dr. Erica Kriner, who has spent the past several years of her life making waves in the world of conservation. Can you tell me a little bit about your work, Dr. Kriner?”

“Yes. Currently, I am using satellite imagery and GIS to track the migratory patterns of different bird species to note shifts over time that may be influenced by climate change.”

It was almost rehearsed, after a point. I thought often about the work I wanted to do. Back then the idea was ephemeral, but now it has been made tangible in the most specific of ways. I am nervous; this is technology that I’m not entirely comfortable with, but I feel confident in my ability to learn whatever I need to learn in order to be productive in this work. I know I will, because I have always risen to the challenges that I am passionate about.

For now, my research plan is as follows:

First, I will learn everything there is to learn about whooping cranes. I will learn about the history of their conservation, their biology, and everything we know currently about the niches they occupy. I will collect every scrap of information that I can, so that I can know this creature inside and out.

After I know the creatures as organisms, I will look into their ecosystems. I will look at the research collected at their site in Texas, and I will look at other instances of ecosystems where cranes were able to thrive. I will draw out any patterns that I find and focus on the ones that feel most relevant.

Finally, I will work specifically to document the nuances of the site in Canada. I will note any similarities between it and the site in Texas, as well as try to discern the differences that may be useful with regard to the varying functions of these locations.

This is strictly a preliminary plan, and I would imagine that as I delve deeper into the subject, my own line of questioning will shift and I will fall down various different paths in pursuit of answers. But for now, this structure seems to do what I need it to do, and I think it gives me a solid starting point to work with.

Ideally, by the end of my time in this internship, I will care for the whooping cranes in the same way that I care for the rhinos, or the gorillas. By the end of this internship I will have acquired skills that I can take into my own research. And maybe, just maybe, I will be able to speak to my contributions to the protection and revitalization of the whooping crane communities of North America.

Photo Credit to Hemant Kulkarni.

excerpt from Fear & Grieving in South Africa

“Okay everyone,” Dan walked into the lecture room carrying a green satchel. “There is a yearly tradition on this trip. When you enter Kruger, you need to have a totem bird. So we brought some guides for you.” He started pulling books out of a bag and setting them down on the table for us. “Look through these and pick a bird. It is our job, and yours, to make sure you find this bird before you leave!”

We all gathered around, each picking up one of the books and beginning to flip through it. I opened one to see an array of strange, brightly colored birds. I was immediately overwhelmed with choices, and for some reason I had decided that this one would be significant.

“Look at this.” Sarah said. She held up a pamphlet of birds seen in Kruger, and the next sentence came between laughs. “It’s a go away bird!”

“That’s awesome,” Taylor chuckled as she looked at the picture of the big, grey bird. “I relate. I might pick that one.”

“See if you can figure out what my totem bird is.” Dan said, a spark in his eye. “I think you’ll know it when you see it. We have a likeness.

We immediately began flipping through the pages, trying to find this mysterious bird that shared a likeness with Dan. Eventually, we all saw it.

“Dan,” Bard asked, a cheeky grin on his face. “Is your totem bird the saddle-billed stork?”

Dan guffawed. “What makes you say that?”

The saddle-billed stork was tall and lanky, with a long neck. It looked a little goofy with its pin needle legs and knobby knees. And to add to the hilarity, it had an incredibly lengthy beak and small, beady eyes that made it look like it was constantly surprised.

“Well it does look a little like you.” Brad continued.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Dan said, still laughing. “My totem bird is totally the saddle-billed stork.”

I flipped through the pages and finally found the bird that I knew would be my totem as soon as I read the name: amethyst sunbird. I smiled, thinking about how my mom’s favorite gemstone had always been an amethyst and how the sun had always been this important sort of spiritual symbol in my life. The bird itself was gorgeous, with the male being a striking black with a curved beak. The name came from a small, glittering patch of purple on its chest. It felt like the right choice. I smiled and set the book back down on the table as everyone else packed up to head to breakfast.

We were a few game drives in at this point, and while we had seen some birds, some monkeys, and a few impalas, I was anxiously awaiting something big. I kept my eyes peeled for a leopard, trying to get a good look on hidden tree branches as we drove past. There seemed to be this deep sense of knowing that I would find the leopard and help create that story for everyone. It was due to this overwhelming urge to spot a leopard that I almost missed the huge giraffe standing in the middle of the road as we came around a curve.

I heard a few quiet gasps right as the engine cut off. That’s when I saw the giraffe, just standing there eating leaves from a tree alongside the road. It was alone, and it was close, though as it moved closer, Dax adjusted the GDV to give it plenty of room.

“Giraffes are very curious.” Dax began. “She might try to move closer, but they can kick from surprisingly far away.”

“How can you tell a female from a male?” Julia asked as she snapped some pictures with her camera.

“Look at the horns,” Dax said, his eyes upwards on the giraffe’s head. “If they’re covered with dark hair at the top, that’s a female. The males usually have bald horns.”

I rested my head on my arm, draped over the side of the GDV, just staring up at the giraffe. She was gorgeous. I was used to animals scattering as soon as humans were anywhere near it. In rural Arkansas, all things are hunted, and the animals learn that. I hadn’t ever been much of a hunter, and while I knew it was an important element of a sustainable ecosystem when done right, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to point a gun towards a creature as lovely as the giraffe in front of me.

Before we had come on the trip, we had talked a lot in class about trophy hunting, and its effects – both positive and negative – on the ecosystem, the economy, and so forth. I had approached it from a place of trying to understand stakeholders and putting my own feelings below that. But as I sat there, watching this creature live fearlessly, it was hard to find any sympathy for someone who wanted to threaten its survival. It was hard to feel like the spirit of the creature was any lesser than my own as she towered above me.

After a long time, Dax slowly turned the engine back on.

“Alright,” he said, “We’re going to head to breakfast, but I promise you’ll see lots more giraffes before you go home.”

Whether it was true or not, I would have spent my entire day sitting there watching that giraffe. Despite all the things that constantly rattled around my brain, giving me anxiety or otherwise distracting me from living my life, that giraffe kind of made all of them seem a little less important. At least while I was sitting there watching her.

We pulled into the small gravel parking lot outside of the cafeteria and all hopped out of the GDV. The morning was cool and crisp, and the group collectively decided it would be a nice morning to eat outside on the patio instead of in the cafeteria proper. We all walked from the single-room cafeteria, balancing plates full of food with very full cups of coffee. As we took our spots on the wooden deck, there was a rustling in the trees.

“Now,” Dax said, looking up into the trees and slowly grabbing for a spray bottle full of water. “Here is South Africa, we love our lions but we hate our monkeys.”

We all chuckled as a monkey came down dangerously close to our table, eyeing our fresh fruit and pastries. I casually picked up my hot cup of coffee, taking a sip and holding it away from the table, should the monkey decide to attack. Meanwhile, Dax was slowly making his way towards our table.

“Here in South Africa,” he said, his voice quieting. “The monkeys like to steal things.” He whipped the bottle in front of him and squirted the monkey, immediately causing it to recoil back into the tree, just as another on a tree opposite our table moved closer. Dax dropped low to the ground, finding just the right angle to squirt it through the foliage. That one along with several more monkeys, unseen, retreated to safety.

The battle won, we continued our breakfast peacefully. Eventually I went back for some orange juice, and as I walked past the picnic tables, an unusual pattern caught my attention from my peripherals. I glanced over at a picnic table to see a long and dangerous-looking snake, lounging right on top of one of the tables.

I jumped, spilling some of my orange juice and making a helpless squeaking noise. Dan, Scott, and Dax all immediately surveyed the area for something dangerous, with everyone else looking at me in confusion.

“Snake!” I pointed at the table, though at the same moment realized something off about the snake.

At first, its lack of movement seemed understandable, but as I got a better look at the body, it suddenly dawned on me that what I was looking at was the very rare, very dangerous rubber snake.

Dax chuckled, walking over to it and picking it up to demonstrate just how rubber and not real it was. I laughed to cover up my deep sigh of relief.

“Sorry,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t leave fake snakes out where they might scare someone.”

I drank what was left of my orange juice, recalling that I had meant to look up what a black mamba looks like and resigning to do it later, once my heart stopped beating so hard.

Once we were back at the dorms, I decided to take some time to myself and head outside to relax before lectures began.

For an anxious only child who grew up with no neighbors and a heat intolerance, I was pretty conditioned since childhood to stay indoors. I have always loved nature and wanted to be close to it but being close to nature often came with humid summers that made me feel like I was going to faint as soon as I left my doorstep. Beyond that, rural Arkansas is teeming with hornets and wasps and ticks and everything else that makes being outside often feel like more of a hassle than its worth, at least for me.

The dry season in South Africa was nothing like that. It definitely got warm out, but for the first time in my life, I was excited to be outside. I wanted to be in nature, to smell the fresh air, to smile idly at the little bugs I found. It was childlike wonder at the natural world that I had never really had the opportunity to feel before.

I sat on a picnic table, off slightly to a corner and hidden a bit behind the lecture room. I had sort of deemed it my private picnic table, to sit and think and admire the world laid out in front of me. I didn’t think about anything, really. Just meditated on the smell of the fresh air and the sounds of the monkeys running on the rooftops.

Just as I was getting ready to head to one of our lectures, I spied a feather on the ground. It was large, with long and soft grey barbs making up the vane. I picked it up, twirling the quill between my fingers and watching the barbs dance through the air. I had no idea what kind of bird it belonged to, but it had to have been huge. I grinned, excited to ask David what it came from and even more excited to show off what I had found. It felt almost like a gift.

I tucked it into my folder and rushed into the lecture hall, taking a seat and waiting patiently for David to arrive.

“Hello everyone.” He walked in with his arms full of more books and set them down before addressing the few of us already there. “How was breakfast?”

“It was delicious.” Ruth replied. “We ate outside, and Dax shot at the monkeys with his spray bottle.”

David laughed, nodding his head. “That sounds like Dax.”

I waited for the idle chatter to subside, and then I carefully pulled the feather out of my notebook.

“David,” I began, “I found this feather on the ground outside. What does it belong to?” I held it up and he took a quick glance at it.

“Ah,” he said.

I straightened in my seat, excited to hear what rare treasure I’d spied with my impeccable sight.

“That’s an ostrich feather.”

I grinned wide, ecstatic to have found an ostrich feather. My mind reeled with how nearly I might have missed seeing an ostrich.

“They use those to make feather dusters,” he said. “You must have found a feather from one of the cleaning crew’s supplies.”

A couple of people giggled at that and I pursed my lips.

“Oh, well that’s less excited than I thought.” I said quietly and more to myself than anyone else. I ran my hand through my hair and laughed. Louder, I said “Well I suppose I’ll keep it anyway and make up a cool story about how I found it for people back home.”

I tucked the feather carefully back into my folder, deciding that maybe it wasn’t a gift from nature but it was definitely a souvenir I’d be keeping.

writing the “perfect chapter”

Today, my editor told me that I wrote the “perfect chapter”. It was high praise from a woman I deeply respect and have relied on for the past several months as she has dealt with my sporadic writing progress. And when I say sporadic, I do mean that I’d go months without writing a single word and then submit 6,000 words in a single weekend. She has been nothing short of a saint in these past several months, gently encouraging me to keep working and giving me a host of tools to help feel inspired.

So today, as I hopped into a call with her and heard all the praise she had for my first chapter of my upcoming book, Fear & Grieving in South Africa, it was difficult for me to accept it whole-heartedly. As it turns out, nothing perfect is forged through anything less than at least one good mental breakdown.

I know a lot of people who are creating something they are passionate about, so I want to share a story of my writing process.

For some necessary context, my book delves deep into my grief surrounding the death of my grandfather, who had passed about a month before I left for my study abroad trip to South Africa. This is the crux of the book, as this trip was my first chance to truly process his death, and all of the emotions I was feeling came crashing down on top of me. I originally wanted to write the book as a love letter to South Africa, but it became more and more apparent that it was really just what I wished I could have said to Poppy.

I had been trying to work on writing the first chapter and the emotional climax of the book at the same time, and neither was getting anywhere. I had several different versions of the same two chapters with only a few paragraphs written, completely unable to even determine how I wanted to start writing. And the closer I got to important deadlines, the worse my anxiety got.

One evening, I went with a friend to see Little Women in theaters. I didn’t know anything about the story, so it was incredibly ironic that I was sitting there feeling guilty about my unfinished manuscript as Jo March was struggling with the same thing.

Towards the end of the movie, Jo’s younger sister Beth passes away from illness. This is surely a heart-wrenching moment for any viewer, but I was in shambles. Jo, spurred to inspiration by the death of her sister, is able to write a novel about their lives to honor her. Her novel, the titular “Little Women”, is successful and lends to the story’s overall happy ending. But I didn’t walk out of the theater feeling very happy. I walked out sobbing. I ran to the bathroom and choked back anguished cries and tried desperately to calm down before the rest of the theater patrons made their way in. I splashed water on my face, to no avail, and exited the bathroom, shaky and ready to get back home.

In the car with my friend, he asked me why I was so upset by the movie.

“Because…she was able to do what I can’t,” I said, tears welling up in my eyes all over again. “Her sister died and she could write her stupid story and I can’t even write a single chapter for my grandfather.”

He looked at me from the corner of his eyes, focused on the road but trying to comfort the wailing girl in the passenger seat.

“You’re going to write this book, Erica.” He said simply.

“I don’t even know if that’s true!” I held my eyes closed with my knuckles, letting the pain of it distract from the emotions for a moment. “I can’t write anything that feels good enough for his memory. He gave me so much. He gave the world so much. I don’t know how to get that across in my writing.”

My friend offered me simple platitudes until I calmed down, though with the tears gone, all I was left with was empty hopelessness at my situation. I wanted to be Jo March, and I wanted to write a story befitting of the incredible man I was lucky enough to have as a grandfather.

Even now, months after this breakdown, I still grapple with this feeling of not being able to write as well as I need to in order to honor my grandfather. But the truth of the matter is that my grandfather would have been overjoyed that I was publishing a book. He would have been over the moon to be able to put that book on his bookshelf. And truthfully, he would have been a little embarrassed to know that it was so much about him and how much he meant to me.

The truth is that the only person my writing doesn’t seem to be good enough for is myself, and that’s why I have a hard time accepting it when my editor tells me I’ve written a “perfect chapter”. But I had to crawl out of a hole of self-doubt to even be able to put the pen to page, so to speak. It took having that moment of confronting my fears to be able to move past them.

What I hope to impart by telling this story is that writing is an imprecise art. It happens however it needs to, but you have to promise yourself to write. You might have to go through a lot to get there; you might even have to break down into a full-on anxiety attack at the movies. But eventually, you will get there, and you will write your own perfect chapter.