2 Minutes With … Finn Witt: Science, art, creativity meet via NASA internship

Finn Witt ’21

2 Minutes With … is a series of short features to introduce us to the passions and interests of Lawrence students on and off campus. Find more 2 Minutes With … features here.

Story by Isabella Mariani ’21

Right now, a peculiar asteroid is swinging slowly around the sun. Meet 16 Psyche—with a diameter of 140 miles, scientists suppose it is the core of an ancient protoplanet, blown away by rocky collisions long ago.

Last year, here on Earth, Finn Witt ’21 interned with NASA’s Psyche Inspired program and helped spread the word about this space giant.

An asteroid first discovered in the 1850s, 16 Psyche has drawn much attention through the years for its unusual metallic makeup. NASA is set to launch a Psyche probe to orbit the asteroid in 2022—arrival time, 2026—to learn more about the goings-on of rocky planet cores.

Witt, a biochemistry major from Kinnelon, New Jersey, was familiar with this mission before he landed the internship with Psyche Inspired. Based at Arizona State University, Psyche Inspired recruits undergraduate students of all disciplines to share the Psyche mission with the public through a variety of creative projects.

“It was a nice crossroads between getting the public excited about what was going on and science,” Witt said.

Getting creative

The internship program takes place over one academic year. During this time, students must create four projects of their choosing that represent the Psyche mission in an artistic way. These projects are shared on the Psyche mission’s social media platforms to get the public engaged with the upcoming launch.

Witt’s projects bear witness to the creativity afforded by Psyche Inspired. He completed a string quartet composition and three paintings, one of which had to go digital when his work was interrupted by the pandemic. But even that was a learning experience.

“It pushed me into digital art, and I do it more now,” Witt said. “It was a new technique for me.” 

Making connections

The communication and collaboration involved in Psyche Inspired stand out to Witt. The students met each week via video chat to discuss their projects. They also met with researchers and reviewed their findings.

“I really enjoyed getting to meet different people in different fields,” Witt said. “I had a lot of fun talking to engineers who worked for NASA and other institutions.”

The internship may be over but Witt’s career in science is just getting started. He is on track to complete the first portion of his dual-degree program; after earning his biochemistry major, he will move on to Washington State University to complete a degree in mechanical engineering. He is currently finishing up his capstone, studying whether bacterial species can survive on Mars.

Isabella Mariani ’21 is a student writer in the Office of Communications.

2 Minutes With … Emily Harper: Science, space, and a chance to explore

Emily Harper ’22 is doing summer research via the NASA Space Grant Program.

Story by Isabella Mariani ’21

Amid the uncertainty of an unconventional Spring Term, Emily Harper ’22 received good news that’s keeping her eyes on the future. The Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium (WSGC) awarded her a stipend for a summer research program, the Elijah Balloon Payload Team Educational Experience.

The grant is provided by NASA’s Space Grant Program, which works with partner universities like Lawrence to fund educational opportunities in science and aerospace in order to prepare students like Harper for careers in space science.

Harper, of Westerville, Ohio, applied for the Elijah Balloon Team on a suggestion from Jeff Clark, a professor of geosciences. She was in the process of applying to other summer research programs when this one came her way.

She is spending nine weeks with a research team made up mostly of engineering students. They will decide together what they want to test with Elijah, WSGC’s high-altitude balloon used to collect data in near-space environments. As a chemistry and English major, Harper looks forward to sharing new learning perspectives with her interdisciplinary team.

“Engineers think a lot differently than a standard chemistry standpoint,” she said, “so it will be interesting to see how I can work on a team with engineering students and solve problems together.”

Sparking an interest

Her interest in field research took root in the fall when she did chemistry fieldwork with her advisor, assistant professor of chemistry Deanna Donahue. She learned to love working in rugged conditions and unpredictable weather.

Of course, things will look a bit different this time around due to COVID-19. The summer research will move to an online format, and perhaps be based more in the design and development of the project.

Looking forward

Despite some uncertainty, Harper is thankful for what she’ll be able to experience. She hopes this summer’s research will inform her future career interests.

“When the pandemic started to get more serious and we were sent home for Spring Term, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do anything in terms of research opportunities for summer,” she said. “So, I’m very grateful that this program is still able to happen virtually.”

Isabella Mariani ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office.