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Nathan Boll heads to NASA internship, Ph.D. position

May 16, 2013

Then he’s headed to the University of Michigan and a full ride scholarship to complete his Ph.D.

It has been an exciting finish to his undergraduate education and the Hope, Alaska native says he is ready for the next level.

“The process of applying to graduate schools and waiting for responses was very stressful,” Boll explains. “To get an offer from one of my top choices was at once a huge relief and a triumph. I felt on top of the world when I found out.”

“The most important thing is the structure of Experience One,” Boll says. “The attention I was able to receive from my professors under Experience One is what gave me the time, confidence and ability to succeed.”

Boll first came to Montana Western in 2010. Throughout his tenure as a UMW student, he propelled his studies to include six appearances on the UMW Dean’s List, twice placing first with a UMW mathematics team in a regional cryptography competition, serving as the general manager of the campus radio station, earning two major scholarships to UMW and a summer internship at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif.

To finish off his senior year at Montana Western, Boll added three new distinct achievements to his resume: a first-place finish at the Montana Space Grant Consortium (MSGC) Research Symposium for his presentation in the small university division; a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with an interdisciplinary team at the NASA Glenn Research Center designing a new mission to the planet Venus; and a fully funded Ph.D. research assistant position at the University of Michigan Rackham School of Engineering in the Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences Department in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Last summer, Boll had the unique opportunity to experience history in the making while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL); he spent 10 weeks working in the Mars Exploration Program (MEP) performing research on Martian geology based on data collected from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and took part in a special live viewing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) landing video feed on Aug. 5. The entire experience had a profound impact on Boll, who soon began to plot his future for a career in the aerospace profession.

While in Pasadena, Boll attended a lecture by James Cutler, an assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan. Boll approached Cutler after the lecture and spoke to him of his aspirations and plans to apply to the University of Michigan. Cutler later handed the application to Aaron Ridley, an associate professor in the University of Michigan Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences. Boll will now be studying under Ridley in fall 2013.

Before heading to Michigan, Boll will venture to Cleveland, Ohio for 10 weeks at the Glenn Research Center. The center serves as a training ground for prospective NASA employees. Acceptance into the program is incredibly competitive and admission is only offered to a person once in their lifetime. As part of a small team of students, Boll will be helping to design the next spacecraft to orbit Venus for atmospheric research.

The interdisciplinary aspect of the project meshes perfectly with Boll’s professional ambition and will be a fitting stage in his educational trajectory. Eventually, Boll hopes to work in systems engineering for NASA.

“It’s multidisciplinary,” Boll explains of the profession. “You have to have a handle on all the facets of the mission, from the science and research side to the engineering and implementation process. We will be planning the mission from scratch.”

Boll would eventually like to come back to education as a professor, and he credits many professors at Montana Western for their instrumental support of his education and career goals. He also speaks highly of UMW’s unique Experience One program, which offers students the benefit of focusing on a single class at a time.

“The most important thing is the structure of Experience One,” Boll says. “The attention I was able to receive from my professors under Experience One is what gave me the time, confidence and ability to succeed.”

As one of the first members of his family to attend college in a generation, Boll also received support from the TRiO program at Montana Western, which is part of a federal program aiming to increase the college retention and graduation rates of students. TRiO provides support to first-generation and low-income students as well as to students with physical and learning challenges. Boll qualifies for TRiO under two of the program’s criteria: he is the first generation in his immediate family to attend college and he demonstrated financial need.

His family is most certainly proud of him, although Boll jokes that they wonder what took him so long. At 35, he is a non-traditional student, but tradition appears less important to Boll than the excitement and promise of the future. For a gifted and ambitious student who grew up and studied under the expansive skies of Alaska and Montana, nothing less than an interstellar goal would seem sufficient.

“The future of human kind will involve space travel and exploration,” Boll says with a thoughtful smile. “It will involve gathering resources and information from outside our atmosphere. Having the opportunity to focus my career on assisting with that evolution is truly inspiring.”