By Lexus Yamashiro | Staff Writer

For second-year KCC student Leiolani Malagon-Leon, science has been her top subject of interest. Although she remembers not being the best at this particular subject in school, she improved in it over time and has made it one of her top goals to one day work for NASA as an aerospace engineer.

This June, she will be attending a four-day on-site event at the Ames Research Center, where she will get to work alongside NASA engineers, scientists and others to do rover simulations, plan Mars missions, and more.

“I like anything that has to do with space … due to the fact that it’s very unknown, and I like a mystery,” said Malagon-Leon, who is pursuing her Associate in Science in Natural Science degree. “There’s always something that needs to be proven or solved.”

Malagon-Leon applied for the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars project (NCAS) last semester, a project that is committed to providing community college students a NASA experience to encourage STEM students to either finish a two-year degree or transfer to a four-year university to pursue a NASA-related career or field. She was first informed about NCAS by a friend in the STEM center, who formerly went through the project himself in 2015. He convinced her to apply for the program, which she did in November of Fall 2016.

Applying for this experience with NASA was easy for Malagon-Leon in terms of meeting the eligibility requirements such as being enrolled as a community college student, being a U.S. citizen, having nine or more hours of STEM coursework completed, and more. However, she recalls finding the personal statement to be challenging since she had to present herself in a way that would make her stand out more compared to the many other students from other college campuses applying.

For five weeks, Malagon-Leon completed webinars as part of the NCAS project. (Photo by Lexus Yamashiro)

With much delight, Malagon-Leon was notified of her acceptance into the NCAS project in January. She was selected as one of 348 community college students from across the United States, and she stated that she is the only student from a Hawaiʻi college campus to have been chosen to be a part of the NCAS project. From the last few weeks of January to the end of March, she completed a five-week program through webinars (seminars conducted online), which covered the different research that NASA conducts such as the Curiosity Rover and living conditions on Mars.

Upon completion of the five-week program, Malagon-Leon had about two weeks to complete a research paper for her final project based on one of the following topics: planning a Mars mission, marketing a Mars mission, or creating a Mars rover. She chose to write about planning a Mars mission, which she included information in regards to what the mission would be about, who the personnel would be, how she would promote the mission, and more.

Knowing that the final project would determine her acceptance to the four-day on-site event at a NASA research center, she was nervous, believing that there were other students who were more knowledgeable and experienced than her. To her surprise, Malagon-Leon received another acceptance letter, this time letting her that she would get to travel to the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., in June to participate in the four-day on-site event.

“When I got the letter, I got ecstatic; I was the happiest person in the world,” Malagon-Leon said. “I was really excited [and] I can’t wait; I have been counting down the days.”

In preparation for her departure to the research center, Malagon-Leon has been continuing to complete webinars and has also been creating resumes for internship programs, and reading manuals for rover kits that she will be building while at the Ames Research Center. She will be working alongside with about 10 scholars in the navy group, which they will get to decide on-site what their new group name and logo will be.

Malagon-Leon said that she looks forward to creating a connection with NASA engineers and scientists. She’s interested in not only being able to create a partnership but also to eventually apply for internships through NASA, which are open to applicants during the fall, spring and summer. Malagon-Leon is considering to apply for the Johnson Space Center Internship program in the near future or is hoping that the Ames Research Center will have some opportunities available.

Showing much passion for wanting to pursue an aeronautical career, Malagon-Leon believes that her time spent at the research center will help to influence and develop more academic and personal goals to help her to become an aerospace engineer for NASA. Knowing that she’ll get to hear a few personal stories and experiences of NASA engineers at the research center, she hopes to get a better understanding of how real life jobs work.

“On campus, everyone always tells you, ‘OK, this is how the real world’s going to be,’ but no one really tells you … real personal experiences,” Malagon-Leon said. “… I’m very grateful to be able to go so it’s something I will take advantage of and kind of go full force with it.”