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Wednesday, September 27, 2023


Senior one of 12 worldwide chosen for prestigious internship

Only one other Houston student has been chosen to participate in the program, in 2011. | Abby Trout/ The Cougar

Twelve undergraduate students worldwide are annually selected to participate in the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s summer internship program, and as geology senior Sabrina Martinez stood outside the Science and Engineering Classroom building and checked her email, she was stunned to learn she’d made the cut.

Martinez will begin the 10-week program in Houston this summer, where she will work one-on-one with a scientist at LPI or at NASA Johnson Space Center on a specialized research project.

“I was so excited,” Martinez said. “And so shocked.”

Martinez’s project will focus on the geology and topography of Venus, including its Eistla Regio and Nissaba Corona regions. More specifically, Martinez said she will work to determine if a certain feature in those regions is of volcanic origin or the product of a meteorite impact.

Only one other student from UH has had the opportunity to intern for LPI. PhD candidate and teaching assistant Lily Schaffer went through the program in 2011. She was the only intern to analyze a sample taken by Apollo 16 and work to categorize it.

“I think it’s a really good experience for someone who wants to get into academics like Sabrina,” Schaffer said. “You get to learn all of the things you will need to use in academia. She is smart, a super good student, so I’m not surprised that she got in.”

Born in Houston and raised in Beaumont, Martinez said she naturally gravitated to the University of Houston. As a freshman, she was undecided about her major until she took Dr. Robinson’s intro geology class and fell in love with the subject.

The next year, Martinez began researching with professor of geology, tectonics and petroleum geology, Paul Mann, and decided that she wanted to pursue it as a career.

“It was pretty early when I started doing research,” Martinez said. “I was in way over my head, but I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, so Dr. Mann helped me with that.”

Martinez has worked on two research projects with Mann, most of which use satellite data for projects in the Caribbean. One of the reasons she was attracted to LPI’s program was that she is familiar with the type of research it demands.

“She has the right tools,” Mann said. “GIS, research experience and papers at conferences. She’s a little higher, much higher, than most of the undergrads that we have here. That’s probably what stood out about her. Interns develop communication skills and technical skills,” Dr. Mann said. “It could be a major turning point in her academic career.”

Martinez says research is a constant that she wants throughout her career, another reason why she applied to be an LPI intern. Researching planetary science with top NASA personnel is an opportunity that could shape her future in the field, she said.

Like most college students, though, Martinez is still undecided about what exactly that career will be.

“Focused research is definitely something to look forward to,” Martinez said. “Having all of my time devoted to the project without the distraction of classes and work. Right now, I don’t have time to sit there and only focus on the research. I have to take a break and study for tests then try to refocus, which is hard.”

Researching at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center is a dream job of Martinez’s, but she is also considering a career in academia. First, she says, will come graduate school, where she hopes her tenure as a teacher’s assistant will help her decide if teaching is her true fit.

“Highly competitive research internships like the one Sabrina received will help her stand out in the future in any direction her career goes,” said earth and atmospheric sciences professor Alex Robinson. “Hopefully, this internship will help her develop new contacts within the larger scientific community and help start to establish a name for herself.”

Throughout the program, students from around the world work with scientists either at the Lunar and Planetary Institute or at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

“All of the resources I need are here in the labs,” Martinez said. “Satellite data and software about the Caribbean that I can access at any time. That’s directly applicable to how you research planetary science because you can’t go to another planet.”

As for her future, Martinez said she can see herself pursuing one of two career paths.

“I would love to work at NASA,” Martinez said. “If they have any interest in my projects as a full-time job, then I would definitely take the opportunity, but I would also love to be a professor. I met a Professor at Tulane who gets to travel to Italy and the Amazon for her work. I think that would be amazing too.”

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