Samantha B. Bonar

In the most competitive year since the partnership began, six Occidental College students have been selected for the fall 2013 Student Independent Research Internship (SIRI) Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working with the nation’s top scientists on robotics, microorganisms and other research projects. 

The six students, from a variety of majors and class years, are collaborating with JPL researchers on projects in their particular fields of interest.

Alex Kuefler ’15 of Flagstaff, Ariz., is a cognitive science major working with intelligent computer vision and parallel processing at JPL. Of the research, he says he finds the work "intellectually stimulating … I appreciate how much I can bring my creativity to bear on the projects I’m implementing." Also in the realm of intelligence, mathematics major Gregory Capra ’16 of Mill Valley is the leader of a robotics team that is researching and prototyping a robot that will communicate with robots on the surface of the moon, Mercury, and Mars.

Lillian Hochman ’16 of Boston is a physics major who hopes to one day become a biomedical engineer, but is starting her career at JPL by programming and developing a new form of PERL script to help NASA take higher-definition photographs of Earth from the International Space Station. In a similar project, Jeffrey Yoshida ’16, a physics major from Ventura, is programming and editing code for the Sally Ride EarthKAM in an effort to improve the image processing speed of the outer space camera. "The experience has been memorable so far, and has given me the opportunity to connect with many brilliant scientists and engineers… It’s been great learning about what it takes to make it in the science world," Yoshida said.

A little closer to home, Duncan Brown ’16, a biology and Spanish major from Sebastopol, is working in the office of Planetary Protection to protect the earth’s biosphere from extraterrestrial contamination, while Heidi Aronson ’16, a biology major from Los Altos, is working on a project testing the effects of space environmental conditions on bacteria. She hopes to learn more about astrobiology and space research in general. "I hope to contribute to a project that will help us understand more about how bacterial life is affected by extraterrestrial environments," Aronson says. 

The SIRI program was founded by JPL in 2003 to encourage JPL scientists to mentor Los Angeles college students and help them prepare for careers in science and engineering. Other participating schools include UCLA, USC and the University of La Verne.

Oxy’s participation in the program and the successful placement of the six students is the latest expression of the long, mutually beneficial relationship with Caltech and JPL. More than three dozen Oxy alumni have gone on to professional careers with JPL, including Diane Evans ’76, director of the Earth Science and Technology Directorate, and Michael Sander ’63, manager of the Exploration Systems and Technology Office.

--Madi Tsuji '14