Dreaming of radio signals: WVU student excels in NASA internship
West Virginia University computer science engineering major Joseph Shepard has dreamt of accepting a job at NASA since he was a kid.
Story by Adrianne Uphold, Graduate Assistant
Shepard, a senior from Parkersburg, West Virginia, had the chance to fulfill his childhood dreams during the summer 2021, serving as a space communications and navigation intern at the NASA Glenn Research Center.
“I accomplished something that I had dreamed of since I was a child. I finally had a job at NASA!” Shepard said. “During my time at the NASA Glenn Research Center, I worked with a group of four interns and our mentor to completely redesign the Space Telecommunications Radio System to be reusable for multiple different missions.”
Shepard and his team aimed to create a modular software-defined radio system for NASA missions. The software allowed the technology to be put together like a LEGO AM/FM Radio, a toy LEGO piece that connects on top of other LEGO items. Shepard was personally responsible for modularizing the encoder and decoder chain in a very high-speed integrated circuit hardware description language.
Before Shepard accepted his internship with NASA, he enrolled at WVU in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering – set on entering the space industry. It wasn’t until he took an electrical engineering introduction course at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources that he realized computer engineering felt right to him.
“I was drawn to the electrical side of engineering,” Shepard said. “I tried it out and found that computer engineering just felt like the right place to be. It combined my favorite things about hardware and software and gave me what I felt was a perfect balance.”
At the same time, Shepard joined the WVU Amateur Radio Club, not knowing only three years later, he would become president of the club.
“I felt like all the cards had aligned,” Shepard said. “In my time at the Statler College, I was exposed to many experiences that helped to prepare me for my NASA internship. Without my computer engineering courses, I would not have been able to complete my job, specifically my labs. The Statler College provides a real-world hands-on experience that is vital to being a good engineer.”
Shepard applied what he learned in his labs to his internship at NASA through understanding complicated flight software.
“The most challenging thing during my internship was trying to understand the flight software that was given to us. Having previously been designed as one large radio system, it took a lot of time for us to understand how to properly split things into different functions. Not to mention some of the concepts we were dealing with were very technically advanced,” Shepard said.
“Despite facing this difficult challenge, Shepard showed a strong sense of initiative in learning how to code in MATLAB,” Shepard’s supervisor and the lead Telecommunications Engineer at NASA GRC, Dylan Gormley, said.
“I selected Joey due to his interest in amateur radio,” Gormley said. “He would quickly learn that amateur radio and professional radio are quite different. By the end of the internship, Joseph had developed and demonstrated working code for the codec. He also presented and documented this information in a very effective way.”
Following his summer internship, Shepard accepted a yearlong internship in August 2021 at NASA Goddard’s IVV Facility as a mission protection systems intern. There, he focuses on system modeling for mission protection applications.
Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit
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