Keene State College students “enter to learn” and “go forth to serve.” This is exactly what Nicole Mihalko, a math and physics major from KSC, has been doing.
Mihalko is completing this semester interning at NASA in Maryland. This will be Mihalko’s second time working for NASA as a college student. Mihalko is interning with NASA’s Undergraduate Student Research Program. It is here that Mihalko works out of BETTII on an experimental telescope.
Although this telescope will not be going up into space, it will have the ability to look at faraway galaxies and black holes. In a few years it will be launched and in the meantime, Mihalko is researching as well as building this equipment.
When asked about her schedule at NASA, Mihalko said, “It’s a lot like school,” then quickly laughed and said, “actually, it’s nothing like school.”
She meets up with other interns and explained that one can make their own schedule based around what they are doing specifically. Mihalko gets up around 8 a.m. and leaves her job around 5 p.m. So to her it is like “actually working a real job”.
Mihalko expressed that her favorite part of her role at NASA is “working with all the scientists and engineers and with people that have the same interest as me [her]”.
She knows people from last year, making it easier to talk about research and ask questions. With this internship, however, she faces many challenges. Mihalko stated that, for example, efficient code language for programming is not taught at KSC and that a lot of things she has done is a matter of “teaching yourself how to” do so. She further explained that she builds room structure for the telescope and has never used tools the program wants her to.
“It’s a lot of learning but I think it’s fun,” Mihalko said.
In order to achieve her goal of working for NASA, Mihalko had to have the specific GPA the program was looking for. Having worked for NASA last year as well, she felt more prepared applying again this year. The Keene State Honors Program may have been another guiding force that has helped her reach her goal. Dr. Margaret Walsh, the coordinator of the Honors Program, said, “The National Collegiate Honors Council uses a swimming pool as an image for a college, and the deep end of that pool as the ‘honors’ aspect of college. Most people do not spend their entire swimming time at the deep end, but it is worth trying out.” This program “offers classes, research opportunities, a living and learning community, as well as global experiences.”
When asked how she felt about KSC preparing students like Nicole for the future and their personal goals, Walsh felt that “in many cases, students are in the driving seat. They bring their interests to the classroom and to discussions with their academic advisors. I [Walsh] share opportunities that I [Walsh] come across through local and national networks. Students in the Honors LLC and in the Honors Parliament have put together workshops and panels of alumni and other professionals to educate all students about career possibilities.”
Brian Green, part of the Honors Program advisory council, conveyed that the program is “always happy to support students” and in regards to reaching their goals, “we can help them get there quite often.” Green also spoke of how “Nicole seems to be doing just that” and points out “we do have a great need for young people going into the sciences.”
With Mihalko being one of the few of these young people, Green said “not a lot of students get to do an internship like that.”
He also said Mihalko’s internship is a “really cool and really great accomplishment” and “slowly more and more Keene State students are doing those things” in regards to internships in as many fields ranging as far as athletics and sports. According to Green, “it looks like students are trying to take advantage of cool things such as sports and academics.”
Each and every person who was questioned about Mihalko’s internship was impressed to say the least.
Walsh said, “Nicole is making the most of her college experience. Working at NASA was an aspiration that Nicole developed when she was young, and she worked toward that goal steadily. She was not afraid to share her plans with her professors. She developed her application over a long period of time, and her diligence and incredible talents in math and physics really worked for her.”
Mihalko’s friend and roommate Gwen Lanouette also had many positive remarks. When asked about Mihalko’s accomplishment, Lanouette said it is “absolutely awesome, she definitely deserves it” and said Mihalko is “the hardest worker out of all of us” in comparison to her suite mates and group of friends. Lanouette translated that “we all try our hardest but she definitely works hard, maybe twice as much. I [Lanouette] can’t imagine how she does it.”
As far as personality wise, Lanouette spoke of Mihalkowithout any hesitation as a “fun person” and “all around nice girl. If you have a problem or if you need her, she’ll listen to you. You can always show up at her door to ask for advice.”
Since their friendship is valued so much, the two “text on a regular basis and use AIM pretty much every night” and are aiming to Skype video chat every Saturday to keep their friendship thriving.
Lanouette said, “We’re all very proud of Nicole, we definitely miss having her in our suite, I [Lanouette] love bragging about her and her internship. We want her to know we miss her and we’re proud of her.”
In regards to her future, Mihalko said she hopes to “end up working at NASA or another center in the U.S.” and has “always wanted to do it since I [Mihalko] was in fifth grade.”
She wants to study black holes and other phenomena similar to that.
Upon giving advice to other students, Walsh said, “I am speaking to you from a national conference in Philadelphia where 250 students (including 8 from KSC) have come together to study local and fair trade industries over the weekend, and not for a grade, but because they are interested. I encourage students to jump at any invitation they receive in their classes or student clubs to learn outside of class, whether it is by attending a conference or through traveling or work experience. Putting oneself in a new situation can be unraveling at first, but the payoff can be dramatic.”
Mihalko herself also has advice for younger students about accomplishing and reaching their goals. She explained the importance of making big connections with everyone in the sciences because she found this very helpful.
“Don’t give up, look for opportunities, apply yourself,” she said.
Keene students may not all turn out to be rocket scientists, but rather an expert in a field they are just as passionate about as Mihalko is-whether it be music, writing, design, architecture, education, or any other direction in which our dreams lead us.
Brittany Ballantyne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org