NIHERST/NASA interns return

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From left, Keenan Chatar and Ariel Chitan share their summer experiences on the NASA International Internship Programme at NASA Ames Research Centre. Photo courtesy NIHERST.

By SHEREEN ANN ALI. Published in UWI Today, October 2018 issue.

Two UWI, St Augustine students, Keenan Chatar and Ariel Chitan, recently represented T&T at the NASA International Internship Programme (NASA I²), a ten-week summer programme which offers promising science students the chance to participate in cutting edge science projects and gain valuable international exposure. The internships this year ran from June 18 – August 24 at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.  The two young scientists shared their unique internship experiences to a very attentive audience of about 80 tertiary level students, parents, educators and science fans at Engineering Room 101 in UWI on September 5, 2018.

Keenan Chatar, 24, is currently pursuing his Masters in Applied Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Ariel Chitan, 23, has just completed the final year of a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. Keenan and Ariel were among four shortlisted candidates selected following a local screening process that involved more than 20 top students studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.

The NASA internship programme is intensive. It emphasizes teamwork, research and creativity, balancing science and technology with issues of management, finance, social and human issues faced by aerospace professionals. Students take part in informal discussions, lectures, supervised sessions, group projects and visits to NASA centres, and are mentored by NASA scientists.

Keenan Chatar’s internship centred on energy harvesting using nanomaterials. Ariel Chitan’s internship was part of aeromechanics research activities that directly support the civil competitiveness of the US helicopter industry and the US Department of Defence.

Retired Major Julia Charles-Joseph, Registrar at NIHERST, spoke at the September 5 Lecture Series, describing the success of the NASA I² programme since the first group of T&T students took part in it in 2014. She said NIHERST has supported nine interns to date, and that the purpose of the programme is to increase the number of STEM professionals doing research to help develop T&T. The NASA I² programme is facilitated by the Ministry of Education and NIHERST in collaboration with NASA, with Atlantic Energy as the main sponsor of the programme.

Keenan Chatar worked on designing and building a portable data system for a triboelectric nanogenerator. A “nanogenerator” is a type of technology that converts mechanical or thermal energy into electricity, while the term “triboelectric” refers to a process where certain materials become electrically charged after they come into frictional contact with a different material – rubbing glass with fur, or a plastic comb through the hair, for instance, can build up triboelectricity. 

Chatar explained: “Energy is around us everywhere, in different forms, and is often wasted. There are different ways to harvest that energy and use it better.” Imagine, for instance, being able to charge your cellphone just though your own walking. The principle of nanogenerators can be applied to large scale ideas, like harvesting the energy produced by wind and ocean waves, or to small scale uses, such as self-powered micro devices.

Chatar built two prototypes of TENG (triboelectric nanogenerator) devices. He hopes to apply his research to a Masters project proposal for building a TENG wind energy harvester off the Manzanilla coastline – a novel approach to green energy.

Meanwhile, Ariel Chitan worked at the NASA aerodynamics complex where models are tested in massive wind tunnels. She spoke of the “huge, mind-numbing size” of the larger wind tunnel, which measures 80 ft x 120 ft. Her role was to help with research in testing the effect on test results of the 80 x 120 ft wind tunnel when structures (eg buildings or walls) are built opposite the tunnel. A miniature model of the wind tunnel was built, to see how a wall-like construction would affect tests in the tunnel. This involved simulating turbulence with high velocity winds, so a crane had to lift several massive fans to create the winds. Chitan helped measure and examine the behaviour of these wind currents.

Both Keenan Chatar and Ariel Chitan praised the high quality of mentorship and networking experiences they received on the programme. They also enjoyed good fellowship and camaraderie with fellow student interns: “We met some super awesome people, all doing fascinating things” said Ariel. Keenan shared his awe at seeing the NASA facilities at the Ames Research Centre, including the Supercomputer Facility which is used for fascinating computer simulations such as modelling the birth of the universe. He shared some astronaut food – freeze dried banana slices – at the end of his talk, a sweet end to a very interesting public lecture on the NASA I² aerospace internship.