By Adrienne Sylver
As a child, Melissa Venedicto dreamed of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, but as an undergraduate at FIU, she became so intrigued by the materials used in prosthetic devices that she pursued a major in biomedical engineering. It was in a biomaterials class that she found her true passion ― materials research.
At the time, Venedicto didn’t fully grasp the real-world applications of her calling. It wasn’t until lab experiences and an internship in FIU’s NASA CRE2DO program intertwined that she found there were endless career possibilities in the space sciences. Venedicto discovered the power of atomically-thin materials, or 2D materials ― versatile and applicable to both electronics and biomedicine, both fields of interest to her.
Today, Venedicto is a Ph.D. student in FIU’s College of Engineering and Computing. She hopes to pursue a career with NASA or in a related industry lab. As part of the NASA CRE2DO program, she loves speaking to youngsters about science and engineering. Community outreach and education are a recent addition to the program.
“Most kids think NASA is for astronauts,” Venedicto says. “It is, but it is so much more. I get the kids talking about moon rocks, materials that are so thin they are invisible to the eye and growing plants in space. They begin to understand that being an astronaut is more than living at the Space Station and that NASA offers a wide variety of career opportunities.”
Currently, for example, NASA has openings for scientists, engineers and information technology specialists, but also for business analysts, accountants, attorneys and psychologists.
Venedicto is the perfect example of how the NASA CRE2DO program is helping to fulfill one of NASA’s key missions ― that of seeing more minorities and underrepresented students enroll in STEM programs, says Daniela Radu, Ph.D., associate professor for the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. She is also the NASA CRE2DO and National Science Foundation (NSF) Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) Center director.
Radu and FIU have been recent recipients of some $8 million in grants to increase diversity and inclusion in cutting-edge research from NASA and the NSF. At FIU’s labs, studies are being done on space-resilient infrastructure materials, communication devices and small satellite technology.
“How are humans going to live in space? That’s the NASA directorate,” Radu says. “We are working on all of the elements to build an ecosystem on the Moon, and by bringing more women and minorities to the STEM stage we are building momentum in the efforts to ensure that underrepresented individuals are critical members of these work teams.”
FIU’s NASA CRE2DO program has been successful, Radu says, with 3 postdoctoral associates, 15 graduate students participating in research, and 22 undergraduate FIU students being guided by CRE2DO-affiliated members. Some 16 students have become interns at NASA, working everywhere from Kennedy Space Center to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the Langley Research Center and the Goddard Space Flight Center.
“With lab experience and a NASA internship on their resumés, our students are quickly placed in jobs after they interview,” Radu says.
The growth of the program is exciting, says Eduimar Hinestroza, who works as its research coordinator for the Department of Mechanical & Materials Engineering. “Now we have expanded beyond our college students to do outreach with K-12 students, engaging them in activities from projects that deal with climate change to the Artemis Challenge,” she says. “It gives young students a much larger perspective of their world.”
With Artemis missions, NASA is reigniting interest in Moon exploration and inspiring the next generation of scientists. One of its goals is to land the first American woman and person of color on the Moon.
Through the NASA CRE2DO program, FIU has worked with high school students at TERRA Environmental Research Institute in Miami, as well as elementary and middle schoolers at Pinecrest Cove Preparatory Academy and AcadeMir Charter School West & East. Students throughout Miami-Dade County in the FIU Upward Bound Program through Student Access and Success are also given opportunities to participate in NASA CRE2DO activities.
For Venedicto, her time as an undergraduate research intern at the NASA CRE2DO Center at FIU helped her build upon what she was learning in the classroom, enhancing her laboratory, analytic and collaboration skills, as well as her knowledge of nanomaterials.
“You can be a NASA star without being an astronaut,” she says. “If it weren’t for the program, I wouldn’t have pursued a Ph.D., and I probably would have been a miserable medical student.”
Students or teachers who would like FIU to bring NASA content to their school or student organization, contact Hinestroza at email@example.com or visit https://nasa-cre2do.fiu.edu/.