NASA experience launches student’s career aspirations into stratosphere

Working with whip-smart astronauts at NASA has launched Melanie Whiting’s career aspirations into the stratosphere, inspiring her to pursue a terminal degree and design her own dream job.

“I definitely want to go all the way with my education,” noted Whiting, AMD’16, who described her colleagues as “passionate,” “brilliant,” and “super charismatic.” “I want to learn as much as I possibly can from them, and maybe that will open up doors for me down the road.”

Whiting, a fourth-year combined major in studio art and communication studies, discussed her professional development plan in a recent telephone interview from the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. There, she is working on co-op as the safety awareness and communications intern, a position she discovered through NASA’s recruiting portal.

Her tasks range from teaching astronauts how to use social media responsibly to vetting photos and videos from the International Space Station. Astronauts, Whiting noted, must be particularly mindful of NASA’s social media guidelines, which explicitly prohibit the endorsement of products or companies. “They want to relate to people on Earth, but they have to be careful about brand endorsement,” she explained. “One reason why NASA hired me is because they wanted a younger and more in-the-know intern with a mind for good social media practices.”

When she’s not supporting the International Space Station crew, Whiting is busy getting schooled in NASA history, soaking up knowledge from the likes of astronaut Peggy Whitson, who’s logged some 376 days in space.  The discussions, Whiting said, have inspired her to sketch portraits of her favorite astronauts and scenes from her once-in-a-lifetime co-op experience. One day, she sketched a self-portrait of her visit to the original Apollo Mission Control Center, her most memorable co-op moment to date.

“It was surreal,” she said, “to see the capability of such old technology after spending time in the current International Space Station Mission Control.”

Whiting portrait of Peggy Whitson.

Whiting’s sketch of Peggy Whitson.

What’s not surreal is Whiting’s post-graduation plan, which includes graduate school and the potential for a do-it-yourself career. The blueprint for the next phase of her life took shape the moment she chose Northeastern for its signature co-op program, the defining factor in her decision. Since then, she’s worked on co-op in two vastly different settings—last spring, she worked for Enlightenment Productions, the London-based film company—and honed her understanding of her strengths, weaknesses, and professional goals.

“My goals have everything to do with finding a space where my skills are needed,” she said. “At the current rate of change, I don’t think my dream job exists yet, which is encouraging because that means it could be something I design for myself.”