NASA/JPL program plans return to CSUN

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Efforts to obtain new funding and reintroduce the NASA CSUN/JPL PAIR program to students will continue after the program was discontinued Aug. 31 due to lack of federal funds, according to the director of the program.

Carol Shubin, mathematics professor and director of the NASA-PAIR program at CSUN, said she is working on obtaining a grant to continue a program that looks to bring minority students into the fields of science, mathematics, engineering and technology by putting real NASA research and data into the hands of CSUN students.

“The program affected people’s lives,” Shubin said. “We need to have more programs like that.”

NASA CSUN/Jet Propulsion Laboratory Partnership Award in Integration of Research was discontinued this semester after a $1.2 million grant it received in 2000 expired, Shubin said, adding that the program will hopefully continue if a grant from the National Science Foundation is provided.

“It’s not a completely dead idea,” she said.

The program will need about $1 million to operate when it is continued, she said, adding that a final decision on the grant will not be ready until Spring 2006.

If the program is continued, it will be given a new name, Shubin said.

The NASA CSUN/JPL PAIR program was designed to strengthen a student’s research abilities, computer proficiency and analytic skills to understand data sets from NASA.

According to Shubin, the program was one of the most successful programs at CSUN since it was first established in 2000.

There were 13 students in the NASA CSUN/JPL PAIR program last year that worked with seven CSUN professors, including Shubin.

She said the program encouraged students to continue their educational pursuits in science and mathematics by practicing real science with CSUN professors.

More than 70 percent of the students involved completed the NASA CSUN/JPL PAIR program, and 78 percent of students in program went on to graduate school, according to Shubin. After students graduated from the program, 22 percent of worked at technical firms or NASA, and several students are now working on receiving doctorates in science and mathematics, Shubin said.

Tracy Purdum, graduate student in geography, was involved in the program for one year as a student, and then became a research assistant for NASA CSUN/JPL PAIR in the 2002-03 school year. Purdum said her completion of the program gave her the opportunity to intern at JPL.

“I knew it was going to be important for me,” Purdum said. “It’s helpful in so many ways.”

After Purdum completed the program, she won a first place award in the Student Research and Creative Works Symposium at CSUN in 2004 and CSUN Sigma XI Student Research Symposium in 2005 with a project titled “Classification of Geographic Formations in Hyperspectal Imagery,” using support vector machine algorithms, she said.

A student from last year’s NASA CSUN/JPL PAIR program, John Sikora, placed second in this year’s SRCWS in the College of Science and Mathematics for his “Fiber Reconstruction Techniques in Diffusion Weighted MRI” project.

For the past five years, more than 10 students from the NASA CSUN/JPL PAIR program won more than 16 prizes from various science competitions, according to Shubin.

Purdum’s recent project on remote sensing, which uses data from a satellite to distinguish rock types, was recognized by CSU Student Research Symposium in early 2005, where she was asked to present her project. She said she also presented her project presentation at the American Geographical Union in December 2004 in Sacramento.

“I wanted to get out there and present my research,” Purdum said. “I knew I had a great project. I knew I had to do this.”

Prior to joining the NASA CSUN/JPL PAIR program, Purdum said she was an earth science major, but she decided to switch her major to geography to expand her ideas for the remote sensing project.

“The program helped me focus to go to grad school,” Purdum said.

Purdum said she wants to be teacher at the college level after she obtains a master’s degree in geography. She said her experiences with presenting her research at various conferences would help her in pursuing a teaching career.

“I enjoy researching and presenting,” Purdum said.

Oscar Morataya, who was in the program during the 2002-03 academic year, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science at CSUN and is now working on his master’s thesis about aerospace at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio.

Morataya said the NASA CSUN/JPL PAIR program was “a stepping stone” to his graduate studies.

“The program provided the confidence I needed,” Morataya said. “It made graduate school possible for me, and showed (me) basic steps to take toward my goal.”

Morataya also said his experience as an intern at Boeing for one year was beneficial.

Last September, when he had an internship at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Morataya met a professor from Ohio University doing research work on a flying car project, one of Morataya’s interests.

He was later invited to do his Ph.D. work in Ohio, he said.

“The point is, there is potential. After I finish my master’s, next Fall I may go on to earn a Ph.D.”

As part of the NASA CSUN/JPL PAIR program, five new data analysis courses – Solar Physics, Proteomics, Global Positioning Systems, Orbital Mechanics, and two new mathematical modeling classes – were created, according to Shubin.

The different classes mean the students work as an interdisciplinary team, Shubin said, meaning science, mathematics, and engineering people work together to advance their research, contributing unique backgrounds and perspectives.

According to Shubin, students in the NASA CSUN/JPL PAIR program divided into small groups, and were required to complete three courses from four data analysis courses: Solar Physics, Global Positioning System, Proteomics, and Orbit Mechanics.

“We created a class (to find) the Northridge earthquake fault,” Shubin said regarding the GPS class. The students worked to determine the location of the Northridge earthquake fault partly to see if scientists could predict earthquakes.

“It turned out, in the end, students were very close to predicting where the (Northridge earthquake) fault was,” she said. “We had (the) very similar result to (the predictions of) scientists of JPL and Caltech.”

A regular course of the NASA CSUN/JPL PAIR program started three weeks before the semester, and students came to the course four days a week and worked with professors six to eight hours a day, Shubin said. The seminar gave students and professors the opportunity to meet with speakers from JPL and other universities, and students attended lectures that were given by the professors.

Guest speakers talked about projects and classes the program had been working on and involved in, such as proteomics, GPS, and protein structure, according to Shubin. Students and faculty became very close during these intensive experiences, she said.

“Professors are obsessive with them,” Shubin said. “Professors really care about them.”

For professors, the NASA CSUN/JPL PAIR program was a rewarding experience.

“I think one of things for me, just personally, when you’re teaching a program like this, students are much smarter,” Shubin said. “I don’t know the answer. You don’t know the answer. So we work together and figure out.”

Aya Oikawa can be reached at aya.oikawa.73@csun.edu.