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Engineering student reflects back on summer fellowship with NASA

September 6, 2017

Eric Morgensen

Last spring, Eric Morgensen wasn’t sure whether he should apply for a summer fellowship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) offered through Caltech.

Morgensen, a Pecatonica, IL, native who is set to graduate in December with a degree in mechanical engineering, decided to go for it. He was selected, and spent 10 weeks in Pasadena, CA, working with a JPL scientist to design a system to detect methane in the atmosphere.

“My mentor did work with the system on the ground. I took his research and created a system with temperature controls and pressure controls that could be put on a remote-controlled airplane and flown,” Morgensen said.

The applications for the system include both safety, as methane is a highly combustible gas, and environmental protection, since methane also contributes to global warming.

Though Morgensen was disappointed he didn’t get to see the final application of the project – “10 weeks is not a lot of time to design, test and build a system” – he was gratified to have played a role in its development.

“Working on a project and knowing I was making a positive impact for the environment was really special,” Morgensen said. “It was amazing to be a part of a company so focused on science. Everyone at JPL is so dedicated.”

The summer fellowship was Morgensen’s first experience as an intern or fellow. He said fellow students considering an internship opportunity should definitely give it a try. Spending a summer working with NASA as a mechanical engineer reinforced for him that he is in the right major, he said.

“It also made me realize the classes I’ve taken here are definitely important,” he said. “Not just design, but the fundamentals of engineering. It took a day or two to really grasp the scope of the project, but then I could step back and look at it, and I could see what I needed to know and needed to do, and I had that knowledge because of what I’m learning here.”