NASA Interns Return With New Prospects, Realized Dreams

October 30, 2017

Zach Petrek, a second-year doctoral student in chemistry and chemical biology, can usually be found running experiments in the laboratory of his advisor, Professor Tao Ye. But this summer, he did something different — he went to NASA.

Petrek was one of seven UC Merced students to intern at NASA over the summer, an opportunity provided through MACES, the Merced nAnomaterials Center for Energy and Sensing.

Launched in August 2015 with substantial NASA support, MACES has a mission that encompasses cutting-edge research, community outreach, and training students for tomorrow’s NASA careers. As part of its mission, MACES provides students with a direct pipeline to NASA internships.

Petrek interned at NASA Ames Research Center in the lab of Jing Li, where he worked on developing chemical nanosensors to detect proteins and DNA. According to Petrek, comparable nanosensors that detect biomolecules in gas have been around for 10 years. It was Petrek’s job to make the technology work in different contexts.

“The goal was to figure out how to make the biosensors work in liquid,” Petrek said. “We want to adapt it for self-diagnostics for astronauts and to detect life elsewhere in the solar system.”

Though his research aims were clear, Petrek was given significant leeway to pursue the project on his own terms.

“Working with Jing was really great,” Petrek said. “I’d come up with a plan and run it by her. I had a handful of ideas, and she gave me guidance and let me try them.”

Outside the lab, Petrek attended the NASA Ames 2017 Summer Series, biweekly seminars that brought scientists and engineers to Ames to discuss topics as wide-ranging as planetary science, aerospace engineering and astrobiology.

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