University of South Florida


USF student’s internship at NASA is a ‘perfect intersection of STEM and equity’

USF senior Lisette Melendez poses outside the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California

USF senior Lisette Melendez poses outside the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California

A semester internship at NASA has expanded to a year-long dream experience for USF senior Lisette Melendez. She’s assigned to NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., working remotely to assist in its efforts to increase the diversity of its workforce and foster a more inclusive environment for its employees. This follows months of interning in-person at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View Calif., prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Melendez is a member of the newly established NASA Earth Science Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) Task Force. She’s helped develop “Speak Up: Conveying Inclusivity through Language,” a weekly email series disseminated to employees that provides historical context to certain verbiage and explains why some may find it offensive. She’s also part of a diversity pathways project, which has curated a database of STEM organizations that focus on uplifting historically excluded groups and serves as a mechanism for future outreach activities that help diversify the applicant pool.

“The internship opportunity has been an incredible experience all around because not only do I get to work on this topic of DEIA, which is important to me and I get to help start these difficult conversations at NASA workplaces, but I also get to network with a wide array of people who work in NASA from people who work in archives to people who work at planetary geology, so it better helps me corner what type of field I’d like to go into in the future,” Melendez said.

Lisette Melendez poses as a child with her abuelita

Lisette Melendez is photographed as a child with her abuelita, whom she attributes to "fostering a love for the stars." 

The geology major and astronomy minor says she found her passion as a kid when she started carrying around a rock collection and an old, battered copy of the Smithsonian Handbook of Rocks and Minerals. She identifies as a queer, disabled Latina and said she hadn’t been exposed to female scientists or scientists of color until she started at USF, prompting the realization that she could pursue STEM fields, calling it a “life-changing moment.”

“Lisette’s firsthand experience has informed the insight and passion she brings to the task force, and she’s helping us lead by example in the field of Earth science,” said Lawrence Friedl, director of NASA Earth Applied Sciences. “Scientific progress – and our society – benefit when we welcome and value all voices and perspectives. There’s so much to be done, and Lisette is helping us work toward that goal.”

Melendez says the NASA experience has been a perfect intersection of her greatest passions of science and equity. She’s already concluded nine internships and is scheduled to graduate this summer and hopes to work as a curator of meteorite collections at a natural history museum and continue to pursue STEM outreach efforts.

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