Talking to NC State’s Charlie Detelich, a Smithsonian intern

Talking to NC State’s Charlie Detelich, a Smithsonian intern

Charlie Detelich, a rising senior at N.C. State, is interning at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum this summer. Here's what it's like.

Above, Charlie Detelich talks with museum visitors. Photo courtesy of Charlie Detelich.

Ever wondered what it takes to get a super cool internship, like, say, with the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.? Charlie Detelich, a rising senior at N.C. State, shares all about her experience as a current summer intern at the super cool museum.

Charlie Detelich (right). Photo courtesy of Charlie Detelich.

Iman Usmani: What is your major?

Charlie Detelich: I’m double majoring in geology and meteorology.

IU: How did you hear about and get the opportunity to work at the Smithsonian?

CD: I’ve always loved the air and space museum. I actually visited it for my 15th birthday. Over winter break, I was searching for planetary geology internships at places like NASA and the Lunar and Planetary Institute. I didn’t know the Smithsonian offered internships, but a quick Google search showed me otherwise. [You can find more information about Smithsonian internships here.] Luckily, when I applied, a planetary geologist at the air and space museum saw I was from N.C. State and called his friend, my teaching assistant (TA) for a geology class, and asked him if he knew me. My wonderful TA, whom I’ve also been doing research with recently, was able to speak highly of me, so the planetary geologist at the museum recommended me for this internship. That recommendation, along with my previous research experience, helped me obtain this opportunity.

Detelich explains a display in the museum. Photo courtesy of Charlie Detelich.

IU: What is your day-to-day like?

CD: Every day is different. Some days, I’m in the office which usually means I’m catching up on the most recent journal articles about my project, or I’m mapping ancient Martian river channels and observing how their characteristics differ from river channels here on Earth. If I’m not in the office, I’m probably working in the lab at the Natural History Museum across the National Mall. There, I conduct grain size analysis by separating out different size grains in a sample of sediment using a sieve. It’s sort of like the beach toy where you put in a bunch of sand and then shake the pan until sea shells are the only thing left. In my work, it’s a stack of those pans, each with a different size mesh so the samples sort themselves, on a machine that shakes the stack of pans. The other fun thing about working at the museum is all of the fun events for interns, like a private tour of Reagan National Airport, a meeting with an astronaut, movie nights, and all sorts of things. It still baffles me that I get to walk past the lunar lander, the Hubble space telescope, and John Glenn’s Mercury capsule (Friendship 7) every day on the way to my desk.

IU: Do you like living in D.C.?

CD: D.C. is a fantastic city. I love living here. I live about a 10-minute walk from the White House. The architecture of the buildings is amazing, and you’re always surrounded by history! The nice thing about working at the Smithsonian is that I get to enter into any of the 19 Smithsonian Institution museums through the staff entrance, meaning I don’t have to wait in long lines. As someone who is obsessed with museums, it’s fantastic to be able to visit museums wherever and whenever I want! I also walk across the National Mall almost every day to get from the Air and Space Museum to the Natural History Museum, so I get to see the Capitol building and the Washington Monument every day, which is still pretty surreal. The main thing I miss about Raleigh, though, is definitely the Bojangles on Western Boulevard.

IU: What are your plans after the Smithsonian?

CD: After I finish up with my internship for the summer, I’ll be moving back to N.C. State for my senior and super senior years. (Because of my dual majors, I have to spend an extra year in undergrad, but two degrees in 5 years sounds like a pretty good deal to me!) After I finish undergraduate, though, I’ll be going to graduate school for my masters or PhD , hopefully in planetary science. I’ve been looking at a few programs at Cal Tech, Arizona State, or MIT, but I’m still in my research phase of applying for graduate school. After grad school, my goal is to work for NASA as a planetary scientist studying the planets of our solar system and hopefully visiting them as an astronaut one day! I’m passionate about finding out why the planets in our solar system look the way they do. There’s so many unanswered questions about our solar system, and perhaps by solving those puzzles, we can begin to understand our own planet on a deeper level.

Detelich conducts grain size analysis. Photo courtesy of Charlie Detelich.

IU: What is your favorite project that you got to work on and why?

CD: I only really have one project that I work on at the Smithsonian, with my supervisor, but I do have a favorite part of that project! I really enjoy mapping the ancient Martian river channels. It’s fascinating to look at a feature on a world over 30 million miles away and take a glimpse into what that world may have looked like several billion years in the past.

IU: You’re going to Hawaii soon as part of your internship! What are you doing there?

CD: I’m going to Hawaii for two weeks in the end of July and beginning of August to act as field support for my supervisor at the Smithsonian. I find myself to be very lucky to have this opportunity! I’ll be camping in the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park for a few of the days as well as going for long hikes, something that I love to do back home as well. We’ll be taking more samples of sediment from different areas around the big island of Hawaii to bring back to the lab and analyze to see what sort of processes (rivers, glaciers, or wind) altered the grains of sediment to look the way they do. We can compare the characteristics of these sediments to sediment samples on Mars because Mars and Hawaii are made out of a similar basaltic rock. We can then connect the characteristics of Martian and Hawaiian sediments to see what processes shaped Mars billions of years ago, whether that was a warm, wet Mars with oceans and rivers, or a cold, dry Mars covered in glaciers, or perhaps something entirely different!

IU: Any advice for others who want to get an internship like yours? What is the best thing they can do to get a position at the Smithsonian?

CD: My advice would be to just try hard in everything that you do and be determined to reach you goals. My favorite quote in the entire world is “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up,” by [the late N.C. State basketball coach] Jim Valvano. The best thing that you can do to get a position at the Smithsonian is just be truthful to yourself and be proud of your skills. Show the Smithsonian why they want you rather than why you want them. One of the things that people at the Smithsonian mention when looking through applications is they get a ton of stories about people visiting the museum when they were a kid, falling in love with the museum, and then wanting to work there in the future. Rather than writing about that in your application, write about what skills or experiences you have and why that would make you a perfect fit for the position you’re applying for. Celebrate your unique experiences, because that’ll set you apart from everyone else. Also, do your research! There are so many small departments within each of the museums. Not all of it is about the exhibits. The people that work at the museum have so many different backgrounds, there’s a place for anyone. We have geologists, cinematographers, mathematicians, journalists, historians, artists, physicists, engineers and so many more. And those are just the people that I’ve come into contact with. However, my most important piece of advice, and sort of a self-mantra, is to follow your dreams!

Iman Usmani
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