Aug. 9, 2021
Schulich-trained high school student lands internship at NASA
A Calgary high school student who has been spending time at the Schulich School of Engineering has landed an internship with NASA.
Alessandro Greco, 17, is one of 800 Grade 10 and 11 students who applied for the STEM Enhancement in Earth and Space Science (SEES) summer internship held at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Space Research.
Greco was one of 274 students from around the world who were accepted.
“I’ve always been trying to figure out how things worked and then in Grade 8, I started to get involved in robotics,” Greco told CTV Calgary. “I was inspired by some of the NASA robotics scientists that worked there — and what they were doing — and it was really cool.”
While students have traveled to Houston for the internship in the past few years, the program was only offered virtually in 2020 and again this year.
Hands-on experience at UCalgary
Greco says he spent a couple of years as a programming lead on his robotics team, which led to him searching for some local mentorship.
“I was eager to learn about innovation in artificial intelligence and robotics,” Greco said. “I started reading about the research being conducted at the UVS Robotarium Lab, led by Dr. Alex Ramirez-Serrano, at the University of Calgary.”
Ramirez-Serrano was no stranger to working with high school students, and welcomed Greco into his lab for the first time in 2019.
“At that time, I had a project where we needed some help and he liked what we were working on,” Ramirez-Serrano said. “So he started working in my lab and we had him with us for two summers.”
It worked out to about three months of working on a project called Underwater Vision, developing robot operating system (ROS) software for the control of underwater stereo vision, followed by another three months the following year developing a graphical user interface for the underwater unmanned vehicle.
“Alessandro is a motivated student with a passion for learning and experimenting with new things,” Ramirez-Serrano said. “He required little supervision, and we discussed options for the project and action items on an almost-daily basis.”
Grateful for the opportunities
Greco believes his experience in Ramirez-Serrano’s lab will help him with his NASA internship.
“Dr. Alex has been really generous in giving me agency to initiate and execute projects that I was passionate about,” he said. “Over my two terms, I worked on the development of stereo vision and robotics interfaces, which allowed me to develop an understanding of vision processing, the ROS and graphics programming.”
Not only did the opportunity reveal Greco’s strengths, but he also gained an awareness of the things he didn’t know and wanted to learn next.
“Participating in research at the forefront of robotics innovation has given me a deeper perspective of the potential for technological advancement,” Greco said. “I’m really excited about being a part of that in the future.”
Helping the next generation
While he’s gratified to see students like Greco succeeding, Ramirez-Serrano believes it must be a “two-way street.”
“I hope they learn and get motivated to get into what I believe is an interesting subject — unmanned vehicles,” he said. “It is also about what my lab gains in having these students.”
Ramirez-Serrano says Greco isn't the only student he has trained with that was selected by NASA to work or collaborate with them. Dr. Graeme Wilson, PhD'18 and current engineer at MDA, and Dr. Laura Lucier, PhD'19, NASA's CX2/robotics operations branch chief, currently work or are involved with NASA.
Ramirez-Serrano believes every new student brings different insights and new ideas to address problems, while they also learn, get their hands dirty and have fun.
“Get involved, be proactive and follow your heart,” he offered as advice for students looking for similar opportunities. “Many students spend too much time trying to decide what they want to be when they are adults, and many of them end up getting into areas they don’t really enjoy.”
After Greco is done with his internship, his sights are set on applying for post-secondary schools, including the University of Calgary.
“Being mentored by Dr. Alex has had a meaningful impact on me, and I hope that I can pay it forward in some way,” he said. “Robotics, and even computer programming, is still not part of mainstream education today and I hope to help change that.”