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Student Laurie Garza is reaching for the stars, and Mars, in her academic pursuits
Photos and Story by James Hill
In a hangar facility in the California desert, their goal was to gain the edge over three other companies to convince NASA that their Mars rover prototype was the best for America’s next mission. As part of the high-pressure pitch, there were obstacle courses, simulated rover rescues, and a visit with the space agency’s chief scientist.
“I was thrust into a pressure cooker of competition,” Garza recalled. “It was a truly intense, productive and worthwhile experience. We worked our butts off.”
Garza’s company wasn’t real, rather it was a fictitious one that she and a team of hand-picked scholars from around the country set up as part of a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience. She traveled to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., to participate in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars Project (NCAS). Garza was selected as one of 44 community college students from across the U.S. to take part in the five-week scholars program.
At Armstrong, students formed teams and established pseudo companies interested in Mars exploration. Each team was responsible for developing and testing a prototype rover, forming a company’s infrastructure, managing a budget, and developing a communications plan. In addition, scholars were given tours of facilities and briefings by NASA subject matter experts.
“I was able to get my engineering on,” Garza said. “Our team purposefully chose roles that were designed to get us out of our comfort zone. I served as design and research engineer, but my area is astrophysics.”
Her favorite moment was when she and her fellow scholars got to fly a F-18 simulator.
“I got to feel the g-forces and had to land it without crashing, which I was able to do,” she said.
NCAS is a project funded in part by the Minority University Research and Education Program, which recruits underrepresented and underserved students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics for careers in science. It helps NASA attract and retain students in STEM disciplines critical to its future missions, which include missions to Mars and beyond.
“NCAS not only inspires community college students to advance in STEM fields, but it also opens doors for future careers at NASA,” said Tania B. Davis, Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) manager. “It is rewarding to see the progression of a student from NCAS participant to NASA colleague.”
Garza, who is an Oregon Space Grant recipient living in Happy Valley, almost missed the chance at the NASA experience. She learned about the internship late but was able to submit her application two days before the deadline.
“I whipped up an essay and begged my instructors for recommendations,” she smiled. “They were kind enough to oblige.”
Garza has NASA in her blood. Her father was an engineer for the space agency in Houston and worked on the Apollo, Gemini and Saturn rocket projects.
“My family lived 100 yards from the back gate of NASA,” Garza remembered.
Her life hit a tragic stretch recently that caused her to re-assess things. A former marketing executive with Intel Corp., Garza tragically lost half of her family in a little more than a year, which understandably caused her to go into a depression.“I couldn’t get out of bed for a long time,” she remembered. “But I enrolled in a class at PCC and my life was reenergized. That was a big life change.”
Garza would go on to earn the Amo De Bernardis Scholarship through the PCC Foundation, become a member of the national two-year honor society Phi Theta Kappa, establish a physics society, and win recognition on the President’s List with a 4.0 grade-point average. She wants to transfer to Yale next year to finish her astrophysics degree once she graduates from PCC. Her dream job is to return to Hawaii where she used to live, and work at the Mauna Kea Observatories for the Institute for Astronomy.
“In astrophysics, I just want to contribute,” Garza explained. “I’m not out to change the world, but every piece of work by a scientist, no matter how small, contributes to the world.”