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Montana Western student lands internship at NASA

UMW News Bureau

Helen Sladek giving a speechUniversity of Montana Western environmental sciences student Helen Sladek will be taking her studies all the way to Mars through an eight-week internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Sladek will be working under the Planetary Geology and Geophysics Undergraduate Research Program. She will participate in geo-morphology data analysis centered on information returned by the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, and the Mars Exploration rovers. Her work will specifically focus on finding a landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory rover.

“I didn’t think I had a chance in the world,” Sladek admitted of her application to the program. “My geology studies emphasis is on surficial processes. Applying that to another planet is going to be fascinating.”

The past two years of Sladek’s undergraduate education have been busy for the 25-year old Butte, Mont. native. Aside from preparing for the NASA internship and her graduation, she worked with Montana Western professor and botanist Linda Lyon on an ethnobotany interpretation project in Madagascar. In 2009, she participated in an honors class led by environmental sciences professor Sheila Roberts. The class included a trip to study geology, biology, and natural resource management issues in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Sladek also accompanied her professor, Rob Thomas, to Washington, D.C. for the U.S. Professors of the Year ceremonies in November 2009. Thomas received the 2009 Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges U.S. Professor of the Year honor from The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Sladek introduced Thomas at the D.C. awards luncheon.

"Helen is one of the most enthusiastic and positive students I have seen at UMW in 17 years,” Thomas said. “She is what faculty hope for in all of our students: a hard-working, eager-to-learn, critical thinker who is always engaged."

Sheila Roberts, Sladek’s advisor, shares in Thomas’ enthusiasm.

“Helen has a wonderful spirit of scientific adventure and a curiosity that crosses disciplinary boundaries,” Roberts said. “The fact that Helen won this highly competitive NASA award confirms both her personal academic success and the quality of our environmental sciences program.”

Sladek said the internship will be an exciting new direction for her and will provide her with exposure to exciting new technology on her path to a graduate degree.