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Michelle Brann ’15 is a Chemistry and Math major. Passionate about astrobiology, she interned at NASA’s Ames Research Center her sophomore summer. In the summer of 2014, she was one of 10 students worldwide to participate in the NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration 2014, a highly-selective program focused on leadership, team-building, and research. After graduating this May, Michelle plans to work at one the Department of Energy’s National Lab for one to two years before pursuing a PhD in Chemistry.

Day in the Life of a NASA intern (when not off site touring):

6AM: Wake up
6:45AM: Walk over to Mega Bites Cafe for Breakfast
7AM: Individual Research Project
11PM: Group Lunch (or Lunch Lecture)
12PM: Individual Research Project
2PM: Centerwide Colloqium Lecture
3PM: Individual Research Project
5PM: Cooking, Mingling and Dinner Lecture
9PM-12 AM: Group Project Work

1) How did you land your internship with NASA your sophomore summer?

I ended up at NASA Ames Research Center by simply applying online through OSSI, NASA’s One Stop Shopping Initiative. I filled out a general application complete with essays, letters of recommendations, previous work experience and then more specifically found projects that interested me. Principal Investigators (PI’s) read the applications, often upwards of 30 students for one spot and offer positions without further interviews. My mentor Oana Marcu, told me that I stood out based on my extensive previous research experience from my summers at Maine Medical Center’s Summer Research Program and IDEXX Laboratories. Not only did I have specific laboratory techniques required for the position, but I also had the molecular biology coursework biology from the coursework required as a prospective Biological Chemistry Major.

2) Could you tell us a bit about the project you worked on during your summer internship?

My project involves studying algae, more specifically the unicellular alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and its response to oxidative stress. C. reinhardtii is first unicellular member of the Volvocine lineage, followed by colonial species and the multicellular relative Volvox carteri, making this family of algae a good model for understanding the evolution of multicellularity in response to environmental stressors. Such work will help in the search of life outside Earth. Additionally, for astronauts to survive in outer space, closed life support systems are necessary to remove waste such as carbon dioxide, feces and urine and convert these bi-products into usable oxygen, food and water mimicking Earth’s environment. One possibility for regenerative life support is algae. Since algae are photosynthetic organisms, understanding their response to the environmental stressors experienced in space allows manipulation for optimal oxygen production. I hypothesize that there is a universal response to any environmental stressor recruiting signal molecules to generate a more specific response.

3) The NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration is a very intensive summer research program. Could you tell us about some of the highlights of the program, and some things you learned?

The NASA Academy was honestly my best summer experience so far! The highlight was definitely the close interaction and tours of many Aerospace Companies as well as networking with NASA Academy Alumni. I learned how to give my 30 second elevator speech and the importance of being able to interact and work with those of all different backgrounds for my group project. I was fortunate to attend a private wine tasting with NASA Ames Center Director Pete’s Worden’s at his favorite winery as well as sit a dinner table with him and four others and ask him questions about his trips to abroad. Besides going to Nevada and Lake Tahoe, our biggest trip was a five day excursion to Southern California where I toured SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, Caltech and JPL. Although I signed non-disclosure agreements, a highlight was touching SpaceShip2 at Scaled Composites as well as seeing White Knight (the carrier ship) in addition to posing with a mock-up of the Curiosity Rover currently on Mars.

4) How did you discover your passion for space?

I was first introduced to space and its exploration in high school when I participated in the astronomy event for my school’s school’s Science Olympiad Team. I continued with this event for my remaining three high school years. During this time, I also studied the magnitude of Delta Cephei, a variable star, for three months as my science fair project. My current goal remains to connect biology and chemistry research with that space to explore fundamental questions and make it possible to search for life elsewhere. I enjoy studying space from a biological and chemical environment because it makes me realize how small we really are.

5) You entered Wellesley intending to be pre-med, but your plans have since changed. Did your internship at NASA influence this decision?

I entered Wellesley pre-med because I knew that I was interested in science and it seemed the logical choice. At the time, I wasn’t really aware of all the different career opportunities available and saying that I wanted to pursue medicine was simply more acceptable than saying that I had no idea. After getting involved in research and meeting scientists truly passionate about their work at both NASA Ames Research Center as well as through Wellesley and MIT I realized that I am more interested in the research environment.

6) You’re currently continuing your project at NASA as your senior honors thesis in chemistry. Could you tell us more about your thesis work?

I am in a little bit of an unusual situation in that I’m doing an off-campus thesis at Wellesley with Professor Wolfson’s support. I worked on campus for both the fall and spring semesters, but with the financial support of the MA Space Grant Fellowship, I was able to return back to NASA Ames Research Center in January to use equipment not readily available at Wellesley. To test my hypothesis that the universal response to any environmental stressor in C reinhardtii involves recruiting signal molecules to generate a more specific response, I am exposing my culture to heat stress as well as removing metals from inside the cell and measuring signal molecules with a fluorescent tag.

7) Do you have any advice for other Wellesley women seeking careers in space research?

My philosophy is that you should always just apply for everything. Although it may seem as though at times there are very slim chances of getting selected, there is 0% chance if you don’t even submit an application. Also, space research and the space industry is being more privatized over time so there are still plenty of opportunities outside of NASA. Additionally, networking is key and I encourage students to never hesitant to start googling and send out emails.

8) What are you involved with on campus?

This year, I have been part of Chemistry Society while remaining focused on my senior thesis and applying for jobs. However, I spent my first three years at Wellesley as a member of the Varsity Golf Team, but I am recuperating from a shoulder injury that makes me currently unable to compete.