Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Summer 2020: a virtual NASA internship

The summer of 2020 was a far-out one for many people, but for Ferrill Rushton, a 2020 electrical engineering alumnus of the Jacobs School, it was really, really far-out; to deep space, to be exact. Rushton, who is returning to UC San Diego this fall to work towards his master’s degree in photonics, was an intern at NASA’s Space Communication and Navigation (SCaN) Internship Project, analyzing photon counting methods that affect deep space communications.
The internship was designed to be an in-person research experience, but Rushton and the NASA team quickly transitioned to create a meaningful remote internship when the COVID-19 pandemic forced many plans to change.
Rushton's at-home setup for his remote
NASA internship

When electromagnetic radiation from certain deep space communications or low-power systems in low-Earth orbit gets to a receiver on Earth, there is so little incoming light that the photons actually need to be counted. Rushton’s job this summer was to quantify the inefficiency in photon counting methods in situations where a ground station is detecting incoming light from these photon-depraved situations. The results from his project—Finding the Modes of Arbitrary 2D Geometries Using Finite Difference Techniques—will be incorporated into existing NASA frameworks.
“I don’t feel like I was given work just so there could be an internship, they had all this real work for us,” Rushton said.
The internship allows students to perform hands-on training with real mission scenarios, gain exposure and analyze powerful space communication systems, utilize networks software tools and effectively communicate their findings in a final presentation to NASA management. Each student is paired with an experienced and multidisciplinary mentor who counsels the student with his/her work, and also engages with career planning.
Rushton speaking with former NASA astronaut
Alvin Drew during his virtual 2020 NASA internship. 
At UC San Diego, Rushton was involved with SPIE—the International Society of Optics and Photonics—serving as treasurer of the UC San Diego branch last year. He is also involved in Engineers for Exploration, on the Maya Archaeology team.
His advice to current and future students?
“If there's something that you want, there's no reason not to apply for it. Never be afraid to put yourself out there.”