Megan Link applied for an internship with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), not expecting to receive a spot.
When she did, she was stunned.
“I was completely shocked because I was only a sophomore at the time and I didn’t have that much experience,” Link said. “It was an amazing feeling to think that I got into something like that.”
Now for two summers in a row, the senior geographic science major has interned for NASA. Link began school as a biology major, but after interviewing seniors at a career planning event freshman year, she decided to make the switch.
“My friend had a TA’s friend that could meet me, and she was a geography major, and I just interviewed her and it all kind of came together,” Link said. “All my interests were her interests, so I was like, ‘I’m going to give this a try,’ and it worked out.”
Link spent her first summer interning at NASA’s facility in Hampton, Virginia. As the youngest in her group, she worked with other interns on a project about deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.
The group researched methods on how to detect deforestation and provided the team based in Columbia with the information they gathered.
Not only did Link get the chance to interact with others passionate about the program, but she was also able to be one of the first people to use NASA’s new software. There were some glitches along the way, but the interns managed to complete their project.
“None of us thought the project was going to turn out well because it was so new,” Link said. “But at the end of the summer, you realize that you contributed a lot to their work and they continue to work for that software, and they don’t have to do the problems that we ran into because we solved them.”
After her internship ended, Link applied for the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting because she was the only undergraduate student in her group and met the age requirements. As one of the winners, she received an invitation to the conference, and presented the groups’ deforestation project. There, she discovered a new opportunity to work for the organization once more.
Link spent two days at the convention, one day to present and another to explore. While exploring, she stumbled upon the NASA hyper wall, a video wall capable of displaying multiple data visualizations or images simultaneously across a range of screens.
She sat and listened to some of the speakers, and as she was about to leave, a woman came up to her and asked if she was a rising senior and wanted to live in California, where she’d work on projects and even fly on NASA aircraft. Intrigued by the offer, Link said yes. After she got information about the application process, she applied to the program and was accepted.
Link immediately fell in love with the opportunities. She was ecstatic to live on the University of California Irvine campus with 27 other interns but was also nervous that everyone else was going to be smarter than her and that she wouldn’t fit in.
This internship was focused on individual research assignments, but it also gave her the opportunity to work on her project around other students in the house.
Nicole Tiao, a senior physics and history major at Dartmouth University, was in Link’s group and spent a considerable amount of time working around her. Although she had mixed feelings at first, by the end, those feelings changed, and they’re still friends today.
“I thought she was one of those very cookie-cutter people — it was completely wrong,” Tiao said. “She’s a very unique person, and she helped me get through the day. She knows when to be quiet and working but also will have conversations with you.”
When the interns weren’t working on assignments, they had the opportunity to fly on NASA aircraft and see the research on these flights. They also completed fieldwork in California. Link looked at plant species and how they’ve evolved over time.
Other students who worked with Link saw how passionate she was and learned from her. Bronte Dalton, a senior environmental science major at Columbia University, witnessed how versatile Link was throughout the program.
“She knows a lot about different fields since she is a geographic science major, so she has a cool, holistic view about a lot of things,” Dalton said. “She’ll see the historical part of an area or think about the geological impact. It was cool to see when a scientific community would look at something in one-dimension — she’ll look at it in three-dimension.”
Link enjoyed meeting different people in the program and living in a new environment. As she looks back on this experience, she would’ve never thought she’d be where she is today.
“I still don’t know why they accepted me,” Link said. “I remember the first time I applied, they said it didn’t really matter how much you knew, but how passionate you were about it. That’s why I applied.”
Contact Talia Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.