Amanda Kilhenny is heading to the stars, virtually. The senior digital media major is spending the spring semester in Houston, Texas completing an internship in the Hybrid Reality Lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The Honors-in-Discipline Scholar is using her 3D modeling skills to help create realistic tools in a virtual reality simulation of the International Space Station. Although she originally aspired to work on animated movies, Kilhenny is realizing that her career goals incorporate both digital media and science.
Where are you from and why did you choose to come to ETSU?
I grew up in New Jersey. I thought animation would be a good fit for me because I really like art and took a lot of art classes in high school, but animation has the spin in technology so I thought it would be a more diverse field to go into. Outside of California, which was a little too far away, ETSU has one of the best digital media programs, so I decided it would be a good fit for me because it’s closer to home. I’m really happy that I’m here.
Initially, how did you think you would use your digital media degree, and how have your career plans changed?
Going into it, I was aiming toward Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks to do movies, but as I got here, I realized there are a lot of different aspects like short films and video games. It wasn’t until recently that I decided to tie in the science aspect of it and started studying geology. I’ve always liked science, and before I decided I wanted to become an animator I wanted to be a forensic scientist. I particularly like to learn about the Earth’s history and the evolution of animals, so I thought it would be good to have background knowledge in science.
I began thinking about an internship and one of my professors, Dr. Jimi Wronecki, recommended NASA. I kept checking their website for a month, looking for an opportunity that would work for me. Then I saw one that involved animating the solar system. I applied to that one and once the deadline came, I heard back from them that I was recommended for a different position based on my application. They said the position involved working with virtual reality inspired by the Holodeck on StarTrek.
What are some projects you’ve worked on that you think prepared you for the internship?
I took a 3D modeling course two years ago that was taught by a graduate student. He really taught us the different technicalities for making a model and that class is what got me interested in 3D modeling in the first place. I recently took a 3D animation course where we had to model everything in the scene and make a short film. I took on more models in the class to help prepare myself for the internship.
What’s a typical day like at NASA?
Working here is fun. I share an office with my mentor, who is a software engineer. We work nine-hour days so we are off every other Friday. It’s very quiet and I get in my zone so the days fly by. My mentor will answer questions, but basically, I’m on my own.
I just started working on a 3D model of a laser gun that analyzes rock data. I’m recreating the laser digitally, using a 3D scanner and then bringing it into a software program called Maya to update the aesthetics of the model. The virtual reality simulation I am modeling these items for is still in development. A lot of companies come to view demos of it. They put on the headset to see for themselves how realistic it is.
There are a lot of exciting things going on. I recently went to a welcome home ceremony for the crew that just came back from the International Space Station and was able to meet them.
What do you hope to accomplish?
Two or three weeks in, after my mentor saw my 3D modeling skills, he offered for me to continue during the summer for another internship. We are still working out the details, but over the span of both internships, I’ll happily take whatever they throw at me!
How is this experience helping you get outside your comfort zone?
At first I was very overwhelmed. A lot of the software programs they use I hadn’t heard of or had barely used. It was up to me to learn. Because my mentor is very “hands off” it feels like a real job. The experience has given me some self-discipline in knowing what I’m doing and not relying on someone else. Being exposed to this professional environment, I had to get used to their technical communication skills. It has improved my vocabulary!
Is NASA is a place where you can explore your interests in both modeling and science?
Everyone here is really passionate about space exploration. It encourages me to get a more technical background and to keep expanding on what I know in coding. To see what you’re learning and how it can contribute to a larger organization gives you sense of purpose. You don’t always see how it applies to real life in the classroom, but here I see how it can change lives and how the aesthetics of a laser make people feel immersed in the virtual reality training.
I’ve always liked science and space. To be able to study something I was on the surface
interested in, animated movies, and now being able to tie in my two passions of science
and art, that is a really great opportunity. I hope it takes me to a career, but in
the long run, anything I can do at NASA I am happy with.