Status Report

High School Student Wins NASA Ames Honor Award

By SpaceRef Editor
October 19, 2007
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High School Student Wins NASA Ames Honor Award

As Shakespeare would say where there is a will there is a way and Mary Beth Wilhelm, a Senior at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif., has the will. At the age of ten, when many girls are still playing with toys, Wilhelm pleaded for her parents to buy her a telescope. She had gone to space camp at Ames and that fed her hunger for knowledge on astronomy. At first, her parents thought that the telescope request was a childish whim and she would shortly move on to her next dream for her future. But, that isn’t what happened.

Wilhelm had already fallen in love with astronomy. She patiently waited until she was 16 so that she could apply to the Summer High School Research Apprenticeship Program (SHARP) program. Unfortunately, the SHARP program was cut the year that she was eligible to apply so Wilhelm sought a position as an administrative assistant in the astronomy area. “I was happy just to be at NASA,” said Wilhelm. Working as an administrative assistant, the staff became impressed with Wilhelm’s love for astronomy and eventually offered her a position doing scientific research.

“Mary Beth is an exceptional student and has a very bright future ahead of her. It is a pleasure to work with such a gifted and talented student,” said Jennifer Heldmann, Planetary Scientist at Ames. “She is already making significant contributions in terms of scientific research and is exceptionally well-motivated to excel at any task she encounters. We are fortunate to have such talented students working here at Ames and it is certainly a pleasure to serve as her advisor. I think it is important that NASA researchers do their part to inspire the next generation and working with students like Mary Beth makes that job easy.” Wilhelm and Heldmann have become close, as the two have worked together as student and mentor. On 3/14, the two celebrated “National Pie Day,” along with the rest of the Space Science and Astrobiology Division. (For those of us not mathematically inclined, 3.14 equals pi.)

Wilhelm, along with Trinity Allen who recently received her undergraduate degree from Berry College in Mount Berry, Ga., were studying datasets of Mars cataloging more than 17,000 images of gullies that have been identified. Gullies are marks on the surface of Mars that look like they were made from liquid water. They are evidence of possible recent water formations on the Martian surface. Wilhelm also works on a project with Yvonne Pendleton, an astrophysicist formerly at NASA Ames, where she is studying interstellar dust. On this project, Wilhelm is classifying stars using data from the telescopes at Mauna Kea telescopes in Hawaii in support of Pendleton’s project.

For the recent Aurigid shower, Wilhelm invited her friends over and they all stayed up to watch the shower. However, Wilhelm says that the “neighbors think I’m scary.” As for her family, Wilhelm is hoping to convert her youngest sister into an astronomy fan.

The award that Wilhelm won goes to one student ever year. The competition was tough as she was competing against graduate students. There wasn’t stress for Wilhelm as she was not aware that she had been nominated for the award. “There are so many dedicated Ames employees that are doing great things for NASA, and I am so honored that I got to be a part of it. People were so nice to me, and a few people, including (Ames Center Director) Pete Worden, told me that I better come back in a few years to be an employee… to which, of course I said absolutely,” said Wilhelm.

SpaceRef staff editor.