We caught up with Laura Hayes, who last year landed a summer placement at NASA

How did you end up at NASA?

I always had an interest in solar physics and e-mailed loads of people looking for internship opportunities. I talked to my lecturer about how to go about doing this and he put me in the right direction with the right contacts. I emailed a lot of people describing my interests and luckily heard back from NASA Goddard in Maryland, US.

What was the recruitment process like?

The recruitment process was mainly my academic record, CV and enthusiasm. It was also important that I had good computer skills, such as being able to code, along with what courses  I had undertaken in college so far.  However as it wasn’t a set program there was no official ‘recruitment’ process as such.

What kind of things were you doing on a day-to-day basis at NASA?

I was working on a project looking at solar flares in the sun. I worked with a group in developing software in an aim to automatically detect a phenomenon called extreme ultraviolet waves in the sun. For the beginning of my internship it was mostly learning. I had desk in an office surrounded by other scientists that are experts in solar physics so it was really helpful if I had any questions. Although I wasn’t on an internship program as such, there were other American interns there on set program, so I joined in on events they had. This consisted of talks every Wednesday from scientists of different areas of solar physics - this great to really get a taste of the different branches within the field itself. We also had discussions on our own work, giving mini-presentations, and helping each other.

On a day-to-day basis I worked 9-5, but the hours were flexible. It was a laid back environment once you get the work done. Everyone had such a great attitude to work as they are all passionate about what the do. Everyday I would come in in the morning and look over the work I had done the day before, then work on some problems I encountered when running my code. In the afternoon I would usually meet with my supervisor and discuss how the project was going and he gave advice and help wherever he could.

What was your favourite thing you worked on during the internship?

I think my favourite thing was working on an ongoing project, and working in something that is exciting and new. It was also great to get the opportunity to work with some very interesting people, and of course getting a tour of the NASA Goddard satellite building and testing department. I got the chance to see the different tests they undertake on satellites and space-craft before they go into space.  I was also lucky enough to see the new James Webb space telescope that is under construction due to launch in 2018.

What was the hardest thing about the internship?

I think the hardest thing was being thrown in the deep end, you get used to college and school where you just learn what you are taught, but now you are left to do work by yourself, to think of new ideas and apply what you have learned in college. This was definitely the most challenging thing, but in the end was an excellent learning experience and helped greatly in my final year of college.

How did your degree measure up to the work you were doing there?

My degree definitely gave great groundwork into beginning work I was doing there, but its difficult to go from being spoon-fed information, to having the initiative to work by yourself and learn as you go.  I had just completed third year theoretical physics before going, so I had a good basis in physics and maths as well as excellent computational skills. However I had never taken a course in solar physics, it was more of an interest so I needed to learn a lot.  I also worked for two weeks in the solar physics group in Trinity before I went just to get a bit of a crash course into the field.

Would you go back to NASA later in your career?

Yes I would love to go back! I'm starting a PhD in September in Trinity's solar physics group, and my co-supervisor is my supervisor I worked with last summer in NASA, so I will be working closely with the group over there. So I'll be spending a few months for the next four years over there!

What were the most useful skills you picked up at NASA that you will bring to your career?

The most useful skills were definitely the ability to think outside the box, and to apply what you have learned in college to a project. It also gave me the chance to learn how to take initiative and to not be afraid to ask silly questions – it’s the best way to learn! Also my computer coding skills were advanced greatly, and a good work ethic in working as part of a team and collaborating with both peers and expert scientists.

What advice would you give to people who would love to work in NASA?

I would say to go and talk to your lectures if you really have a passion for it. A lot of it is about contacts, so get involved in college and don’t be afraid to email academics asking for their advice about internships etc.

What’s the plan now?

I have just finished my degree in theoretical physics and so I will be taking it easy this summer! But in September I will be starting a PhD with the solar physics group in Trinity, collaborating closely with the group at NASA Goddard. It’s an exciting time to be in solar physics!

Follow Hannah here: @bananapop2