For as long as she can remember, Eleana Cintron dreamed of working at NASA, surrounded by and learning from people as curious about the world as she is.
Cintron found that opportunity earlier than expected when, at 17, she got an internship at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland through Lorain County Community College’s Early College High School program. While she continues to work toward her high school diploma, in addition to an associate of arts and an associate of science degree, she’s spending 16 hours a week interning at NASA. And she couldn’t be happier about the opportunity.
“NASA is constantly doing research and innovation,” says Cintron, who lives in Lorain. “I want to be part of that and learn the hands-on skills you need to be an engineer.”
Cintron’s internship is funded through a Small Business Innovation Research grant awarded to S.D. Miller & Associates, an Arizona company that works with NASA Glenn. Through the grant, LCCC received a subcontracted grant, which is allowing Cintron to work in a variety of labs in the NASA facility. There, she is getting the chance to put her analytical skills to the test. And she’s learning a lot from her more experienced colleagues; to her, X-ray crystallography, thermal diffusivity and thermal conductivity are not obscure terms but rather exciting scientific concepts that are allowing her to expand her knowledge.
Early College High School program is changing lives
As a participant in LCCC’s Early College High School program, which allows first-generation high school students to graduate high school with an associate degree, Cintron’s work in the college’s microbiology lab was key to earning the NASA internship. She entered the program as a freshman, and says the decision to do so has changed her life.
“LCCC has had a big impact on my life,” she says. “They push you go to forward, and they’ll stay with you to make sure you understand the concepts you’re learning and give you advice. They have always gone the extra mile for me. If you have an idea, they’ll say, ‘Go for it. We’ll help and support you.’”
She also credits the influence of LCCC educators including Mark Jaworski, Regan Silvestri, Kathy Durham, Harry Kestler and Michelle Neudeck for helping her earn the coveted spot at NASA.
“I joined a microbiology lab at LCCC researching toxic algal blooms within the Sandusky Bay area and the nitrogen deprivation with them,” she says. “That’s where I first started going into a lab and working hands on. From there, I learned microbiology practices, and I continue to be part of that lab at LCCC.”
Her desire to make a difference in the world and in people’s lives is what drives her work on the algae blooms.
“Millions of people use Lake Erie and Sandusky Bay as a drinking water source, so figuring out why those algae blooms are blooming the way they shouldn’t be is very important,” she says.
Going above and beyond
Cintron’s NASA mentor, Frederick Dynys, says the teen has passed every test he has put before her since she began her internship in June.
“I have given Eleana tasks to test her skills — software programming, X-ray diffraction and basic physics to calibrate a mass spectrometer,” says Dynys, a ceramics engineer. “To meet these challenges, she researched the topics to understand the principles such that she can perform the task at hand. She also asks questions when she doesn’t understand the principle or task. Eleana is always eager and willing to step out of her comfort zone.”
Courtney Tenhover, program developer for the Ohio Technical Skills Innovation Network and project manager for Cintron’s internship, says the professionalism and maturity that Cintron brings to her work make it easy to want to help her.
“I saw her after her first week at NASA, and I asked her how it was going,” Tenhover says. “She said, ‘It’s good; there is just so much to learn. I’m going to go home this weekend and read more about it.’ She never takes it just for what it is. She always wants to learn more and gives 200 percent to the position. I’ve been really impressed with that, and I’m so happy she has this opportunity.”
Cintron is on track to graduate next May with her high school diploma and two associate degrees, allowing her to enter a four-year university as a junior. She is considering applying to both Case Western Reserve University and Purdue University, with an eye toward pursuing a double major in chemical engineering and biochemical engineering. Eventually, she aims to earn her doctorate in an engineering field.