Student Gets Out-of-this-World Opportunity Through NASA

Space exploration and nursing are two subjects that may not immediately seem to go hand in hand; however, one Redlands Community College student is proving that science of all kinds can spin together in perfect orbit. 

Redlands student Kimberly Eldridge with her team's Mars roverRedlands nursing student Kimberly Eldridge was selected to participate in a virtual NASA internship for Spring 2021.  She is working virtually with NASA research scientists at the NASA Ames research center on the WetLab-2 gene expression project. She was one of two Redlands students that participated in the pilot NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) on-campus event at Redlands Community College in Fall 2019.  

“I currently work at the University of Oklahoma in the phase one clinical trials inside the cancer center, so I am in research constantly through my position there,” said Eldridge. “I got some emails about the NASA camp, and I noticed that NASA does a lot of research with cancer in space. I thought, you know, NASA does have nursing pathways and research and things like that. So why not give it a try?” 

After completing a five-week virtual camp in 2019, Eldridge was selected for the NCAS on-campus experience, where she became the project manager and communications person for the green team’s effort to build a Mars rover.  

Now, despite the internship being virtual due to COVID, Eldridge is taking another giant leap in her career pathway with NASA. 

In the Fall of 2019, Redlands Community College hosted its first NASA on Campus event as part of the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS).  

Nearly 500 community college students from across the U.S. visited one of the six community college campuses piloting the NCAS model, developed by NASA, or participated at one of the NASA centers.  

Redlands hosted 22 students from Northern Oklahoma College, Oklahoma City Community College, OSU-OKC, Redlands and Tulsa Community College in addition to students from Alabama, Iowa, Louisiana and Texas. 

“It was exciting to be a part of this pilot project because several Redlands students have benefited from the NCAS experience and were greatly impacted by their time at NASA sites,” said Jack Bryant, president of Redlands Community College. “We appreciate the efforts of our math and science instructors to bring the NASA experience to our campus so that more students can benefit from this unique learning format.” 

The experience consisted of a five-week online activity that culminated with an onsite event at select campuses across the country, and it offered students the opportunity to learn more about careers in science and engineering. While at Redlands Community College, students formed teams and established fictional companies interested in Mars exploration. Each team was responsible for developing and testing a prototype rover, forming a company infrastructure, managing a budget, and developing communications and outreach.  

NCAS green team shows off their Mars rover

“We got in teams, and we built Lego rovers, and it was a blast being around all those different people from all different types of backgrounds and different types of majors in college. I realized that I have a place here just like everyone else,” said Eldridge, who was named MVP by the mentors in the program. 

“I also won the Smiley Award for being the most chipper person. I apparently smile every time someone walks in the room.” 

Kathleen Coughlan, Ph.D., a professor of Anatomy, Physiology, & Sciences, is head of the Redlands Science department, director of the Honors Program and coordinator of the college’s NASA Grant.  

Redlands Community College and Tulsa Community College are the only two community colleges in Oklahoma that are part of the Oklahoma Space Grant program. When NASA offered the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars program, it was designed to target the community college students. 

“Community college populations are very diverse in their backgrounds. A lot of our students might be first-generation students, or they're balancing their work schedules. Maybe they're a single mom,” said Coughlan. “They are very adaptable students because of the circumstances that they're in, and NASA looks for that. They like to have students that come from diverse backgrounds.” 

NCAS is a national experience in which students take a five-week online class, and if they succeed in that, they are invited to an actual NASA center or to an on-campus event.  

“NASA wanted to see if we could bring it to the campus level. In 2018, Redlands was invited to pilot a program,” said Coughlan. “In the Fall of 2019, we held our on-campus event. That event includes a collaborative effort to come up with a rover that can do certain functions like picking up rocks and moving them back to their home base, for example, or picking up buggies or vehicles that have been left on the surface of this planet and bring it back to their home base.” 

The Minority University Research and Education Program, or MUREP funds NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars. MUREP is committed to engaging underrepresented and underserved students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with authentic learning experiences to sustain a diverse workforce.  With this activity, NASA continues the agency’s tradition of engaging the nation in NASA’s mission and leading an innovative and sustainable program of exploration to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.

“NCAS not only inspires community college students to advance in STEM fields, but it also opens doors for future careers at NASA. NCAS alumni often move on to NASA internships and ultimately enter the NASA workforce. It is rewarding to see the progression of a student from NCAS participant to NASA colleague,” said Torry Johnson, Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Manager. 

Admittedly, Eldridge didn’t immediately think of herself as a candidate for the NASA program. As a nursing student, she has a goal to continue medical research as a career. 

But Coughlan said Eldridge was perfect for the program. 

“Many of the participants came from centralized STEM areas like engineering, computer science, aerospace and pre-engineering. But we also get people from the life sciences, like biologists, for example, microbiologists, chemists, and those from the Health Sciences,” Coughlan said. “I think Kim may have been the only nursing student in the cohort, but one of the things I tell students about NASA is that they themselves are diverse in terms of topic areas. There are jobs for a lot of different people at NASA.”

Redlands Community College works with students to promote internships across the board, so Coughlan was thrilled when she heard that Eldridge earned the virtual NASA internship this year. “I think one of the things about Kimberly that is most impressive is that she did get out of her comfort zone. She was able to see the potential in this experience, even being a nursing student, which I think is amazing,” Coughlan said. “Everyone's just really proud of her, and she's an exceptional student.” 

For Eldridge, the experience is even more exciting for her future. During her internship, she will be able to take all the opportunities that she wants and join in on any type of project meetings and internships team

“They bring in people from all over NASA to talk to us and give us opportunities to learn more in whatever areas we want. They really want you to grow and to get all the knowledge that you can,” said Eldridge. 

“My plans are to continue in research and work in cancer research. I love what I do. I want to get all of the knowledge that I can possibly get from every area of the world and bring it all together.”