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What your interns can teach you

By Tam Harbert
August 13, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Jet Propulsion Lab

Lesson learned: Challenge interns, but keep requirements loose enough to encourage innovation.

Value gained: Patent applied for; intern-developed software in process of being deployed.

JPL is a poster child for great internships. That's probably not surprising, as education is one of the missions of this federally funded research lab that's managed by the California Institute of Technology. It has 30 programs and brings in some 500 students (from both college and high school) during a typical summer, according to Paula Caterina, group supervisor of university recruiting in human resources at JPL.

What may be surprising to some is the extent to which interns are allowed to not only stretch their intellectual wings, but also work on real projects that are used in real NASA missions.

The emphasis on internships comes from the very top. JPL Director Charles Elachi started as a graduate student summer intern more than 35 years ago. "He's always stressing that we need to capture the imagination of the students and JPL as an innovative, fun, exciting place that's always coming up with new research," says Soderstrom.

Indeed, on the JPL website, Elachi says interns are the future of JPL. "I consider student employees to be among the lab's most important and valued staff members," he says. "They are often the source of many new ideas because nothing seems impossible to them, and that's right in line with our line of work. We are in the business of making the impossible possible."

Both Kern and a fellow intern -- 18-year-old Andres Riofrio, who had just completed his freshman year at UC Santa Barbara -- so impressed their JPL mentors with their research that they were asked to give a talk on cloud computing to the entire lab. "Both Alex and Andres were doing things that are significantly more advanced than what a lot of the rest of the people in the lab were doing," says Khawaja S. Shams, lead cloud architect at JPL.

That's what happens when you give interns room to run, says Shams. "Very often, students surprise us and come up with a better solution than what we had originally thought," he says. In the case of the cloud software that Kern worked on, the idea was so good that JPL has applied for a patent and is in the process of integrating the software into a cloud-based data backup pipeline for future NASA missions.



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