Everyone toys with the idea of being an astronaut at some point in their childhood, but when that childhood dream doesn’t fade, what can you do to make it a reality? Rutger’s University student Esha Rao shares how her summer internship doing physics research fits into her dream of becoming an astronaut. She balanced her summer schedule with military training and shares her best advice for going after opportunities when you might not fit all the requirements.
Name: Esha Rao
Job Title: Research Assistant (Cyclotron Institute at Texas A&M University)
Location: College Station, TX
College: Rutgers University – New Brunswick
Year: Rising Junior
Major: Astrophysics and Professional Physics
What are you doing this summer?
This summer I have been given the tremendous opportunity of working with particle accelerators at the Cyclotron Institute in College Station, TX through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). My research group is focused on understanding how the elements around us are created in astrophysical events such as supernovae and X-ray bursts. By analyzing data from the experiments conducted at the Cyclotron Institute, I am helping further the knowledge that we have on the nuclear reactions that take place in our universe.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Ever since I was in junior high I have dreamt of becoming an astronaut and have made all aspects of my life revolve around that goal. Along the journey though, I have found my place in various organizations that I would never have imagined, including the military. At first I joined the Navy ROTC program at Rutgers because I knew that a lot of astronauts were chosen from the military, but I have come to love the culture and the sense of purpose I feel in the program.
Through this program, I have found my new goal of becoming one of the first female U.S. Navy Submarine Officers after I commission in 2020. From there I’ll see where life takes me! I could either get accepted to be an astronaut after I serve, continue my military career, or pursue higher education by getting a PhD in Astrophysics or Physics to work in a space program. In the end, no matter where life takes me I just want to make sure that I am making a difference in the world or in space exploration.
How did you get your internship?
Last year I started working with a professor at my university in high energy nuclear physics, who helped me learn a lot about the research community and even got me accepted to present a poster at the annual Department of Nuclear Physics meeting which took place in Pittsburgh, PA last October. At this conference, I was introduced to various graduate programs, one of which was Texas A&M University. My questions revolved around trying to figure out different pathways that military members had taken to get higher education, but in February I had gotten a personal email from the Cyclotron Institute requesting that I apply for their summer research program.
I had researched about their summer program before being directly contacted, but decided not to apply because I was going to miss four weeks of it due to military training. However, after applying they found an advisor willing to work with my timeline and even decided to let me stay two weeks later to catch up on lost time.
What do you wish you had known during your internship search?
When searching for internships I had been looking for programs that were specifically involved with physics – specifically nuclear physics or astrophysics. I did not initially apply to this internship because I thought I would be rejected for not being able to attend the first four weeks. I highly recommend that even if you know you might be missing some time during the programs to still apply. The worst that could happen is that you get rejected or have to decline the offer. It is better for you to have offers than none at all because if you are like me then you would rather be at some place learning more about the field you are interested in than feeling as though you are not achieving anything during the summer.
What does a day in the life look like?
The day of a research assistant can be boring if you’re not proactive. Yes, it is a lot of sitting behind a computer and trying to make plots from around 9 in the morning to 5 pm, but the best part about this internship is that all the actual accelerators are right under the building. I have been able to do hands-on work with the detectors.
I work under a few graduate students, research scientists, and my professor. I try to meet with other people in my group and ask them questions about what they are doing and how they like their job.You have to be aware that everyone has their own personal and professional lives to focus on so they cannot spend every minute of the day with you.
The Cyclotron Institute REU also has various speakers that talk to all the undergraduates about graduate schools and other research fields in physics. I also attend meetings with my research group and give presentations on my weekly progress and other events for minorities and women in the physics department.
However, the best part about working with physicists is that you do not have to dress formally. The only dress code that I have to follow in wearing closed toed shoes and long pants because it is a lab so I just wear a t-shirt, jeans and converse to work everyday unlike all my friends at business internships. Everyday is a new adventure at work because I may come in expecting to complete another code or graph, but instead have to attend lectures about research proposals or fix a part of the detector.
How has this job changed what you see yourself doing in the future?
This job has taught me about the higher education and research route. I realized that I need to have a set idea of what research I would like to pursue in graduate school. I will also have to make sure that I do a lot of research on the university that I decide to go to and the advisor that I work under because the environment that surrounds your workplace really makes an impact on your experience.
You can follow Esha on Instagram @astraonaut