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Aug. 15, 2022

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Star pupil: Union junior interns alongside NASA scientists, engineers

Vancouver teen called "off-the-charts brilliant" by teachers

By , Columbian staff writer
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Alexia Bravo, a soon-to-be junior at Union High School, is participating in a virtual internship with partners NASA and University of Texas at Austin. The project uses computers and telescopes to study the trajectory of asteroids.
Alexia Bravo, a soon-to-be junior at Union High School, is participating in a virtual internship with partners NASA and University of Texas at Austin. The project uses computers and telescopes to study the trajectory of asteroids. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Alexia Bravo of Vancouver is tracking asteroid trajectories with NASA. She’s also working on getting her driver’s license.

That’s right — the work is part of the 16-year-old’s summer internship with the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Space Research, where high school students are working alongside NASA scientists and engineers to analyze imagery and data received from satellites circling the Earth, moon and Mars.

Bravo, a soon-to-be junior at Union High School, elected to do her internship — known as the Student Enhancement in Earth and Space Science program — remotely from the comfort of her own living room workspace.

Equipped with a wall-mounted monitor and two laptops, Bravo studies telescope imagery and inputs data regarding the changes in rotation and brightness to one asteroid in particular: the ingloriously-named #14691. Using a program called AstroImageJ, Bravo conducts aperture photometry, which measures fluctuations in the amount of light reflected from asteroids in a fixed size and area.

At the end of the internship, Bravo and her fellow interns will present their findings as part of a miniature research symposium.

“I’m excited about what’s to come,” she said. “We’ve just really started processing data, usually in sets of about 150-200 images each. There’s a lot more to do.”

Fostering a passion

In middle school, Bravo’s teachers noticed her affinity for science (and learning in general) and demanded she take a few steps up in difficulty. So she took Advanced Placement Physics in eighth grade. The class and the challenges it presented introduced Bravo to what would become one of her biggest passions in and outside the classroom: astrophysics.

“I had always been fascinated by space, but that class really looked into contemporary physics in a way I hadn’t learned before,” Bravo said. “It really started with Mr. Schmierer, my AP Physics teacher at Union. When school shut down during the pandemic, he held extra Zoom classes and made lessons that expanded a lot more on things we were taught during the year.”

Adam Schmierer has taught several different science classes at Union for 13 years. Getting the chance to work with students like Bravo, he said, is particularly exciting.

“She’s brilliant. Off-the-charts brilliant,” Schmierer said, laughing. “Teaching a student like that, I have to stop every once in a while and think, ‘What’s the whole package she needs to have and learn by the time she walks out of here?’”

With two years left in high school, Bravo has already exhausted her math and science options at Union. Next year, she’ll be taking a handful of classes elsewhere, including a meteorology course at Clark College and a data science course through the Stanford Online High School.

As the teacher of Union’s capstone class, Schmierer directs students toward internship and apprenticeship experiences in the community and beyond. His goal is to help students develop a passion like Bravo’s, or just provide work experience.

“Nobody knows what they want to do, and sometimes internships are just about going in and doing stuff,” he said. “Even if it’s not a life-changing job, the students leave knowing whether they’ve gotten a better feel for what they want to do with their careers.”

Schmierer and Union’s biology teacher Kelcey Burris helped connect Bravo with collegiate researchers to help her expand her network beyond Clark County.

Earlier this summer, Bravo attended an astronomy camp at the University of Arizona, where astrophysicists presented research, talked about their careers and provided tours of telescopes in the surrounding mountains.

“It was a whole week of little moments and eye-opening experiences — it opened my eyes to this whole new career field,” she said.

Going remote

Even if Bravo’s work with NASA and the University of Texas doesn’t feature the same level of hands-on activity that her camp earlier this summer did, she said the remote experience has been ideal.

“Sometimes virtual can afford you a lot of opportunities you wouldn’t necessarily get in person,” Bravo said. “It’s accessible and I get to spend time at home swimming and being with my family.”

Among the biggest perks of the experience, she said, has been the speaker series. Every few days, the program hosts experienced researchers and leaders from NASA and the space community — perhaps most notably, in Bravo’s humble opinion — Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise.

“The best piece of advice I would give would be to follow your interests,” Bravo said. “I just found this opportunity on the internet based on searching things I’m passionate about and went for it. If you look hard enough, you can find internships or camps or programs for almost anything.”

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