Indigenous STEM Students: Aim for Stars

Monash University

A global first program, based at Monash University's Faculty of Information Technology and supported by the Australian Space Agency, is calling for Indigenous STEM students across Australia to become NASA's newest interns at their Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The National Indigenous Space Academy (NISA) was officially launched today in Adelaide by the Australian Space Agency as part of NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson's visit to Australia.

NISA will enable five First Nations students to travel to the United States for a 10-week internship at NASA/JPL in Pasadena, California.

The opportunity is open to any undergraduate and postgraduate Australian student who identifies as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and is studying a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

Five students will be chosen from the pool of applicants based on academic merit and placed with mentors at NASA/JPL for the internship in 2023.

As part of the program, students will spend time at Monash's Faculty of IT for a 'Space Boot Camp' internship preparation program to familiarise themselves with aerodynamics, robotics, astrophysics, planetary science, engineering, computer and earth sciences as well as past and current space exploration missions at NASA.

NISA is led by proud Wadjak/Ballardong Noongar man and the Faculty of IT's inaugural Associate Dean (Indigenous), Professor Christopher Lawrence.

Professor Lawrence said this is a pathway for Indigenous students to participate in unique NASA/JPL projects such as robotics for the unexplored ocean worlds, robot perception control, artificial intelligence (AI) and path planning as well as satellites.

"Indigenous Australians are the first scientists, engineers, technologists, mathematicians and doctors," Professor Lawrence said.

"We share a vision with the Australian Space Agency to foster career development for First Nations people in the space sector with the ultimate goal to see the first ever Indigenous Australian astronaut!"

Australian Space Agency Head Enrico Palmero said the Agency proudly celebrates Indigenous Australians as the world's oldest astronomers, and said that they are critical to the present and future as the organisation looks to do space in a uniquely Australian way.

"We are committed to developing a diverse space workforce that can not only contribute to our sector but across the breadth of our science and tech fields," Mr Palermo said.

"I look forward to these students bringing back what they learn to Australia, and to them becoming part of our dynamic space and tech community."

Monash University's Faculty of IT will facilitate and administer NISA with financial support from the Australian Space Agency (ASA) in partnership with Dr Adrian Ponce, who manages the internship programs at NASA's JPL in Pasadena, CA, USA.

Dr Ponce said the Education Office team at JPL is excited to resume their NISA collaboration after more than two years since the start of the pandemic.

"In the space sector, the partnership between the United States and Australia goes back to the days of the Apollo Moon landings, and this collaboration continues that tradition by providing research opportunities to Indigenous Australian STEM students who will consequently be on the path of space exploration," Dr Ponce said.

The Academy was established in 2019 by Professor Christopher Lawrence in partnership with NASA/JPL and has already supported three Indigenous STEM students to successfully complete an internship at NASA/JPL.

Joel Steele, who was part of NISA's pilot program in 2019 and is currently a Research Fellow at Monash University's Biomedicine Discovery Institute, said applying for the program opened up many pathways.

"It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I learned a lot of new skills that have assisted me in my career in addition to meeting amazing scientists. I was also able to assist in projects outside my subject area of space biology. The highlight was getting to operate the flight simulator used to train astronauts and pilots," Mr Steele said.

"I never imagined it was ever possible for me to work or learn at NASA, this was something so far outside the scope of what I thought was possible."

Looking ahead, NISA will work with more partners across the Australian and global space sector to secure more funding for future iterations and increase the scale of the program to support Indigenous led space startups and entrepreneurships.

NISA lead Associate Dean (Indigenous) Professor Christopher Lawrence from Monash University's Faculty of IT is

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