Houston, we have an intern

Alex Popinga, a University of Northern Iowa senior triple-majoring in biology, biochemistry and bioinformatics, will soon have an experience of a lifetime. Through the Student Airborne Research Program in Palmdale, Calif., she will spend eight weeks researching various environmental processes such as atmospheric chemistry and oceanography.

NASA intern

During her internship, Popinga will spend time at NASA's
Dryden Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif. Photo courtesy of
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center.

Prior to leaving, Popinga will have a stack of preparatory material to read through, and will also attend lectures at the NASA Dryden Operations Facility in Palmdale before boarding any flights. Students will be in the heart of Orange County in Southern California, where the dress code is strictly shorts and sandals. Popinga joked that her only fear is she may never want to return.

Each intern will complete at least one research flight aboard the P-3B Orion, a U.S. aircraft designed by NASA used for research and development. Research topics include remote sensing of the coastal ocean, land use in the San Joaquin Valley, general pollution information studies and air sampling of emissions in the Los Angeles basin and California Central Valley.

"I try to pass up as few opportunities to learn something new as I possibly can," said Popinga. "This research is indiscriminately significant because it is our Earth, and without an understanding of how we have been affecting it, we're potentially setting ourselves up for quite a nasty surprise in our future and the future of our kids and grandkids."

To collect data, Popinga will learn how to operate the aircraft's instruments. Following the flight, she will develop her own research project from the data she obtains and will give a formal presentation to be used by future researchers and interns.

Inspired by the popular works of world-renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan, atmospheric chemistry has been a fascination of Popinga's for some time. She hopes to discover how pollution affects earth and the people that inhabit it -- before it's too late.

NASA intern

 An inside view of the P-3B Orion, the aircraft Popinga will fly in to conduct her research. Photo courtesy of NASA Dryden Flight Research Center.

"Whether or not you believe in global warming, or the abusive nature of people on their environment, I would be surprised to find anyone who disagrees that pollution exists, to some degree or another," said Popinga. She strives to understand the extent that it does exist, and the short and long-term effects it has on our environment.

Few college students ever get the opportunity to conduct tangible research that could potentially affect the lifestyles of every single person. The impact that humans have on the Earth is an issue that has been debated everywhere, from classrooms to the Oval Office. And beginning this summer, this UNI student will be thousands of feet in the air searching for an answer to one of the most important questions of our time.