Auburn doctoral student, NASA collaborate to customize internship during pandemic

Published: October 22, 2020
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Not even the COVID-19 pandemic could keep Auburn University doctoral student Joe Ozbolt and a talented national team of student scientists from completing a prestigious summer internship with NASA.

While working to complete his doctorate in mathematics, Ozbolt worked with NASA leadership and seven other members of the Space Communications and Navigation, or SCaN, Internship Project, or SIP, to successfully adapt a 10-week program at NASA’s Glenn Research Center to the virtual realm due to the coronavirus outbreak. The team and internship supervisors used software and a digital platform to create a virtual work environment, and despite the challenges posed by being forced to work on projects online from different parts of the country rather than in person in Ohio, they were able to perform at a high level and complete the program.

“I was worried it wasn’t going to happen at all,” said Ozbolt, who was chosen from a pool of more than 600 internship applicants for the team. “The mentors [Alan Hylton and Bob Short] and other interns were so nice and always willing to help you learn and overcome challenges. All around, it was just a wonderful experience.”

The team’s ability to adapt helped the researchers flourish despite the circumstances.

“As math people, the main disadvantage was not having access to chalkboards in person, so it just wasn’t the same,” said Ozbolt, who earned his master’s degree from Auburn in 2017 and his undergraduate degree from the University of Toledo. “We missed out on maybe going and grabbing a drink after work or hanging out, but the Discord [digital platform] system worked really well. Everyone was able to work very effectively and efficiently.”

Ozbolt—who took a day off from the internship to defend his Auburn dissertation in July—gave talks to the group on category theory, performed a considerable amount of computer programming and worked with star tracking as well. In addition, he and the group worked on a project titled “Translating Orbital Simulation Data to Topological Data Analysis,” or TDA.

The latter fell in line with Ozbolt’s main proficiency—his dissertation involved continuum theory in topology, which he terms “flexible geometry”—but a lot of the work his team did for NASA pushed him to broaden his skill set and explore new aspects of mathematics.

“I definitely learned a lot, and a lot of the math we did was outside of my field of expertise,” said Ozbolt, who has taught undergrad classes at Auburn during his time on the Plains. “It was challenging because I wanted to use my experience as an undergrad teacher and apply that to something that was a lot more advanced. The challenge was, because category theory relates so many different fields of math, when you needed to understand a concept with a specific example, I’d have to re-teach myself certain topics in other fields of math that I wasn’t doing for my research.

“So, I was having to re-learn all these other fields of math while learning category theory, but then also teach it to people when half of them already know it pretty well and the other half don’t know it, but are super students who asked really good questions. It was a lot different than teaching undergraduate calculus.”

The star tracking project was a fun exercise for the mathematician.

“You might have a camera on a craft in space, and you want to know how it’s oriented or positioned based on seeing a picture of the night’s sky and seeing the stars that are in that field of view,” Ozbolt said. “It compares those stars it sees with a catalog of stars and applies this data fusion technique based on a theory of sheaves from Dr. Michael Robinson from American University and using these ideas and applying it to a star tracking algorithm.”

The TDA project also had Ozbolt exploring the heavens on his computer.

“Basically what we did is we had this simulation software that simulated orbits, and I just created a toy space network,” he said. “I had different satellites going in different orbits around Earth, some around the moon, some were space stations and some were communications satellites, and I made various connections between those. I needed a simulated space network to pull data from, and the idea was to take that data, parse it and translate it into data that certain Python programming libraries could be used on it.

“You just see the special features of this data based on taking each data point and throwing a ball around it to see how those data points react with each other. You’re basically looking at the shape of data, and when you have the shape of your data, that reveals certain connections or properties of your data set that couldn’t normally be found through other statistical means.”

The internship helped Ozbolt improve his programming experience and was the experience he was hoping for when the Ohio native saw a posting for it on a math jobs website. He decided to apply for the Cleveland-based program since his parents still live in commuting distance.

“I thought it’d be really good to have an internship with NASA as I was applying for other industry jobs,” he said. “It was an amazing opportunity and struck my curiosity.”

He was selected for the program, but the pandemic forced it into the virtual realm. The internship shifting online ended up being a fortuitous turn of events for Ozbolt and his wife—Auburn counseling psychology grad Melani Landerfelt-Ozbolt—because the couple is expecting their first child, a baby boy, in November.

“I really wish I was able to be there in person, but it was also a blessing the way it was, considering my wife’s pregnancy,” he said.

Finding his way to Auburn also was a blessing for Ozbolt, who gravitated to the Plains based on the recommendation of a mentor at the University of Toledo, where he earned his undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics. He came to the university in 2013, almost immediately met Melani—who works remotely at Columbus State University—at graduate school orientation and the couple fell in love.

Ozbolt currently is splitting time teaching business calculus at Auburn and working a new job he landed shortly after completing the internship, so he and Melani are busy and thriving as the holidays and parenthood approach. Along the way, he’s also developed a love for Auburn and being a member of the Auburn Family.

“Auburn wanted me, and it turned out better than expected,” Ozbolt said. “I made some good friends in and out of the department, met my wife and have gotten to teach, which I love to do.

“The town is great, and the spirit is great. I couldn’t be happier with it all.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.