By Brooke Thames '18
PLU Marketing & Communications
TACOMA, WASH. (Aug. 10, 2016) - When Justin DeMattos '19 enters his junior year at Pacific Lutheran University in a few weeks, he will be coming off an internship experience that's out of this world (quite literally).
DeMattos, a physics major and computer science minor, traveled to Johns Hopkins University this summer to work at the institution’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. He’s helping with the Solar Probe Plus mission, which will send a spacecraft into the sun’s atmosphere for the first time.
DeMattos found time to chat about the work he’s doing and the experiences that prepared him for it.
What work are you doing as an intern for NASA?
Right now I’m working on designing visualization tools for the Parker Solar Probe. That mission is scheduled to launch next summer in 2018 out of Cape Canaveral. It’s a mission to study the sun. It’ll make groundbreaking history in getting as close as we’ve ever been to the sun, which is really cool. I’ve actually gotten to go see the probe and everything! It’s not very often you get to say that you’ve seen a spacecraft that isn’t coming back to Earth after they launch it.
On a normal day, I’m mostly working on a computer doing programming. This internship is mostly computer science. So, I’m working on trying to develop visualization tools for a website to help the science team support the probe. The visualization tool is going to be an orbit plotter that will show the orbit for the probe.
How did a sophomore student from the West Coast get an internship with NASA in Maryland?
I wanted to apply for something NASA-related since my first year at PLU. My original plan in early high school was to do something business-related because I like math. I always had a soft spot for astronomy. I just didn’t know what I could do with it. I eventually took a physics course in my senior year of high school, and that really made up my mind. I decided that I would really want to work for NASA.
So, I just basically did a search for NASA internships. This one came up for the applied physics lab. I actually wasn’t going to apply to this one just because I thought it was a long shot after I applied last year and didn’t get in. My mom ended up talking me into applying. I applied online. Then I was contacted over spring break and interviewed about some of my experiences that weren’t listed on my application. I found out in late April that I got the internship.
What’s been most rewarding about your internship?
Definitely the people I’ve met. It’s really fun to work with different people with different backgrounds. I’ve met all kinds of engineers and scientists and people from all over the country. There’s interns from Texas and California, to Pennsylvania and Maryland. It’s really cool to hear their experiences and how they got into it. It’s also cool to hear about staff members at the lab and how they got involved in this kind of work and what they’re actually working on.
What’s been most challenging?
Definitely my lack of experience in what I’m working on right now. Coming into this internship, I’d only taken two computer science courses at PLU. And, unfortunately, they weren’t taught in any of the coding languages that I’m working in right now. I’m so glad I’m getting the experience I am getting, but it’s been difficult trying to learn as I go. My mentor has been really good at helping me learn it, helping me do it on my own as I go, and giving me ideas for how to solve problems.
What is most fascinating about the work you’re doing?
I’m really interested in new discoveries and science planning and everything that NASA does to make breakthroughs in science. Getting to be a part of that is really fantastic. I couldn’t ask for anything better. Being able to say I helped with a mission that’s going to make history is really cool and really fun.
What PLU experiences prepared you for this opportunity?
Getting involved with my professors has really helped me get to where I am now. I applied for the astronomy research at PLU last year, but didn’t get it. So, I had to ask if I could volunteer and see what they were working on over the summer. They happily invited me to check out what they were doing. Working with them really closely and being able to go in at any time to ask questions has really been helpful. Not to mention my friends at PLU, who have really helped me and encouraged me to apply and put myself out there.
How has this internship helped improve your computer science skills?
In all kinds of ways. I’ve learned all kinds of different languages, operations, new ways to think about things and new ways to solve problems. It’s really been a great experience that’ll help me in the future, not just in computer science, but physics as well.
How has your experience as an intern impacted your future career goals?
I love the science field and I love working in the lab. I’m not sure yet if I’d be willing to do what I’m working on right now just because it’s only computer science for the most part. I really haven’t done a lot of physics in this internship. I was actually talking to my mentor the other day, who is a cosmologist. He likes to do physics problems as well, and he’s working on all computer science things. He said he finds cosmology a bit more interesting because that’s his field. That’s something I’ve also thought about here, and I think I’m probably a little more interested in physics because that’s my major. I’d like to do research in that field, but I’d love to be doing it in the lab or at a NASA facility. Next year I hope to apply to the same internship, and various other internships at NASA facilities and companies like Blue Origin — anything involving space, really.