Hello, World: RCC computer science student lands internship with NASA

Most kids who dream of becoming an astronaut never actually become one. But Rowan Parker isn’t like most kids.

The former Rogue Community College student has spent the past several months working as an intern with NASA—not as an astronaut, actually, but as a software engineer. And her contribution is making an impact on worlds beyond our own.

“NASA is incredible!” Rowan said. “Every day I have opportunities to talk to astronauts, scientists, engineers and even NASA leadership. Even in this COVID-19 virtual setting, I’m surrounded by brilliant people all working on amazing projects. It’s hard not to be inspired. Almost every morning, I can’t wait to wake up and experience a new day.”

Portrait of Rowan Parker sitting at a computer.
Computer and science classes at RCC helped lead Rowan Parker to an internship with NASA.

Rowan came to RCC following several twists and turns in her original career plan. After high school she enrolled in a private liberal arts university in Massachusetts to study linguistics and political science. Her goal was to become a presidential speech writer. Shortly into the school year, however, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and Rowan returned home to care for her family. She got involved in the specialty coffee and restaurant industry, growing her career to a point of comfortable success over a few short years. “I was making good money and living a good life, but I felt empty—like something was missing,” she said. With her mom in remission and the future wide open, Rowan decided to return to school.

This time, instead of pursuing the arts, she focused on math, “because I figured everything needs math.” Rowan’s math professor at Lane Community College in Eugene recognized her talent and encouraged her to take a programming class.

“My first ‘hello world’ program was a totally life-changing event,” Rowan said. “I immediately quit my job and decided to attend school full-time.” She soon transferred to RCC, where she met four people who would become instrumental in sparking her love of space.

Programming instructor Cyndy Patterson “did a phenomenal job teaching my foundational programming classes,” Rowan said. Cyndy encouraged her to continue her education at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls and introduced her to the faculty there. Rowan explained, “I was able to excel at Oregon Tech from the moment I got there due to Cyndy’s previous instruction.”

Another mentor was Rowan’s advisor at RCC, Juliet Long. “Juliet was so encouraging and helped me complete my work at RCC in one year so I could transfer quickly. Without her confidence in me, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to take such heavy course loads or continue in this field,” she said.

The third person was RCC physics professor Dorothy Swain. “Those classes were TOUGH, but never have I found something so interesting. Learning about general relativity is what sparked my interest in space,” Rowan said. Because she found Dorothy’s classes so challenging, Rowan learned she can handle anything that gets thrown at her. “Dorothy taught me an important way to look at problems and start solving them. She really set me up for success, not only academically but also professionally.”

And finally, Rowan credits RCC TRiO coordinator Pamela Green for helping her navigate the transfer to Oregon Tech, including applying for scholarships and teaching Rowan how to advocate for herself. “Pamela also hired me as a mathematics tutor, which really helped my confidence and eased the financial burden of attending school full-time without a steady job,” Rowan said.

Now in her third year at Oregon Tech, Rowan is completing a concurrent degree program in Applied Mathematics and Software Engineering Technology. Her courses are mainly focused on math (e.g. differential equations, numerical methods, linear algebra) and applied programming courses (software testing, compiler development, database design). “I say ‘applied’ because RCC did a good job teaching me programming fundamentals. At Oregon Tech, I use those programming skills to build real things,” Rowan explained. For example, she recently worked on a team that built an artificial intelligence aided computer vision system for an autonomous submarine.

Say what now?

“It’s crazy!” Rowan said. “High school senior Rowan would have never thought she would be pursuing anything science-related!” But now math and science are her life. “On a logical level, I chose this degree path because I felt like it gave me the most multi-purpose toolset with which to pursue my passions. On an emotional level—have you ever been somewhere and suddenly felt immediately at home? Or just know that something is truly, undeniably right? It’s a gut feeling, somewhere deep inside yourself. That’s how I feel about programming. It just clicks.”

Through Oregon Tech, Rowan got involved with the NASA Oregon Space Grant Consortium, or OSGC. It’s an organization that creates unique opportunities for students in Oregon to contribute to NASA’s work in exploration and discovery through outreach and mentorship programs, project funding, and internships, like the one Rowan is finishing this fall. OSGC has also supported Rowan’s personal projects (such as a space debris sensor she invented for a CubeSat system) and recently invited her to present her research at the NASA Space Grant Director’s Meeting in Washington, D.C.

All of this has fueled a fire in her belly to pursue a career in the final frontier.

“Absolutely, without a doubt, I want to be in the space industry,” Rowan said. “I always say, ‘It’s space or bust for me!’ My dream is to one day be a chief engineer or program director. I want to put my fingerprint on the history of human space exploration.”

She’s well on her way.

In July, Rowan completed an internship with NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center where she developed software for an innovative meteorological instrument. She created an application that received data from the instrument, processed it, and displayed it in real-time.

“It was really exciting working on something that is completely novel and unlike anything anyone has seen before!” she explained. “That’s what NASA does best—inventing new technologies that extend our access to our world and universe.”

Following her work at Armstrong, Rowan began a second internship, this time with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Through September she’ll be developing requirements for a networking architecture designed to be the foundation for the internet of the solar system. “Want to watch Netflix on Mars? Stream Spotify on the moon? The work I’m doing now is making that possible for tomorrow,” Rowan said. “It’s really exciting stuff.”

But she’s not stopping there. Once her NASA work wraps up, Rowan plans to embark on another internship, this time with Blue Origin, the rocket company owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “This is a particularly exciting opportunity for me, because Blue Origin is partially what inspired me to pursue a career in space technologies,” Rowan said. “I have long admired the Blue Origin mission and New Shepard suborbital rocket—and would you believe it, that’s what my internship will be focusing on! My heart leaped out of my chest when I got the call saying I had landed the position. It’s really a dream come true.”

Rowan’s interest in space goes deeper than science. She believes space exploration is key to restoring our humanity.

“It’s one of the most human things to be intrigued by the unknown,” she explained. “No matter what troubles we have here on Earth, I think space exploration unites us. The wonder of it transcends race, gender identity, socio-economic background, and nationality. How wonderful it is to think that I will be able to be a part of that wonder, a part of something that unites our species?”

And she’s not the only one. You can be a part of it, too.

“A call to all you other computer science people, space exploration NEEDS programmers,” Rowan said. “There are so many things for a software engineer to do at a space company. I think a lot of computer science students don’t think about aerospace as a career option, but you really should.”

And if you don’t think of yourself as a science person? No worries. Rowan didn’t, either.

“I think that people sometimes assume I’ve always been passionate about aerospace—that’s absolutely not the case! I’m someone who didn’t have the means to head straight to a four-year school. I’m a first-generation, independent, non-traditional student. I had to be wise about how much I was spending on school,” she explained.

“Starting at community college not only gave me an opportunity to reduce some of the cost of my education, but it also gave me a place to figure out what I actually wanted to study. I fell in love with math and physics and programming as I found them. In high school, I didn’t even really like math and classified myself as an art person. However, I think being creative is what helps me so much in this technology field. Engineering requires a tremendous amount of thinking outside the box, looking at the world from different perspectives, and reimagining what is possible. So if you’ve never thought of yourself as a math or science person, I encourage you to challenge your perspective. Your creativity is needed. And if you think you’re not smart enough for this (which, trust me, I wonder all the time), you absolutely are! Failure is often the most important part of engineering. We all get better iteratively.”

To learn how YOU can find your path like Rowan did, explore all RCC has to offer at roguecc.edu. The universe awaits your impact.