Softball's Amber Verstynen Discovers Career Path through NASA Internship
Mason softball student-athlete Amber Verstynen discovered a love of science while in high school. She entered George Mason as an atmospheric science major in the fall of 2018 with career aspirations in the meteorological field.
Eager to put that passion to use in the real world, the Patriots' outfielder has spent the past two summers as an intern at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
The Yorktown, Va., native, became interested in working with nearby research center as early as her sophomore year at Tabb high school. Her mother Shannon was working with a NASA contractor on an ozone garden project with the Virginia Living Museum and Amber was eager to get involved.
"We were comparing different plants, including snap beans, tobacco and flowers, and their reaction to the ozone," said Verstynen.
After her freshman year at Mason, Verstynen accepted her first internship with NASA. The research included the analysis of an instrument, looking at environmental factors such as temperature and humidity and how they affected the accuracy of the sensor. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently working on a correction equation on the instruments because of her discoveries.
"The air quality research was really important because we were trying to show that ozone can vary greatly across small distances," said Verstynen.
This is necessary because a lot of satellites and data right now take measurements at larger scale and just estimate in between. Our research that summer showed that this is not the most accurate way to portray ozone levels and NASA plans to launch a satellite in 2022 because of the findings from this project," Verstynen added.
This summer, Verstynen continued her research with the ozone. NASA sent a boat go down the Chesapeake Bay collecting ozone measurements. She analyzed the data that the boat collected, including looking at when other boats passed and how that affected the outcome of the data.
"The ozone research is really important because it would be poor data analysis to include all data including anomalies," said Verstynen. "By analyzing and narrowing down events that were caused by other boats or other factors, I am assisting in cleaning up data to make it more accurate for use in the real world."
The NASA internship program is designed to provide students the opportunity to work on real projects doing research or other experiential learning under the guidance of a mentor. A big part of Verstynen's project this summer is finding reasons why the data is skewed sometimes.
"I really enjoyed finding results that proved something that I was working on," said Verstynen. "There is a satisfaction in the validation of findings I had earlier in my research. At the beginning of the summer, I was able to find and highlight a few instances that I wanted to look into more. It turned out that a boat had gone really close to ours and the emissions from the boat changed our ozone readings."
The Patriots' outfielder credits her commitment as a Division I student-athlete to her ability to balance a wide range of activities. She is the SAAC secretary for the 2020-21 year and Mason's representative to the Atlantic 10 Conference.
"I've learned a lot about working with others through playing softball," said Verstynen. "As a student-athlete, time management is very important and that has helped me plan and schedule everything that I do in my research."
She is finishing up the internship this month and will present her research in January at the American Meteorological Society's (AMS) conference. It was scheduled to take place in New Orleans, but it's all virtual now.
"I really enjoy the position I have as an intern because I get to work on real research with scientists. One of the most exciting parts is seeing the final product."
The experiential learning at NASA has inspired Verstynen to continue her research with the ozone. Her career goal is to get a job at NASA working with research on air quality with wildfires. She plans to enroll in a master's in climate science immediately upon graduation at Mason.
"I'm really interested in the large-scale impacts that wildfires have," said Versynen. "A lot of people, especially on the east coast, assume wildfires don't have a very large impact on them. I hope to find ways to track the national and international impacts of wildfires. Specifically, I am really interested in the chemical composition of the ash and smoke that is traveling across the country. I am also interested in what environmental factors affect the path that the smoke travels."