Wesley Yuen has long enjoyed the intricacies of finding solutions where others cannot.
He recently channeled that passion into helping mitigate the effects of COVID-19 for those traveling into space.
“I would say I’m kind of a natural problem-solver,” he said.
Yuen, a 16-year-old junior at Clements High School in Sugar Land, recently completed a two-month term as part of the Student Enhancement in Earth and Space Science (SEES) summer internship hosted by the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Space Research. The program, sponsored by NASA’s Texas Space Grant Consortium, selects students each year to spend July through August working side-by-side with NASA research experts and completing a team project to present at the end of the term.
Roughly 60 students are selected for the program each year out of 600 applications submitted from across the country, and teams are organized around an aerospace or space science theme drawn from NASA’s engineering and scientific research programs.
“The internship provides an outlet for the excitement many students feel about Earth and space science,” UT-Austin’s Center for Space Research said in a news release. “Interns are offered a unique opportunity to work with professional scientists and engineers at the cutting edge of NASA science, experience being part of a science team, and explore STEM career options firsthand.”
Yuen was part of the “COVID-19 Space Exploration for a Better World” team, which worked 2-4 hours per day via Zoom with NASA subject matter expert Kaye Ebelt on their research. It was aimed at mitigating the risk of COVID-19 spread for astronauts coming to and from NASA’s International Space Station.
The group conducted research on how to best sanitize spacecraft and assess viral health risks while using Python technology to predict vulnerable areas that can help track viruses, create space laws and future protocols for any virus. Additionally, Yuen and his team used microgravity to study the spread of COVID-19 and work toward creating a potential vaccine and designed a model of a spacecraft with social distancing capabilities using computer-aided design software and 3D printers.
“It’s pretty hard to transport sanitation materials to the space station. … We had to find a way to track the best ways to utilize the materials that they have,” said Yuen, who noted the project came together after talking with retired NASA Chief of Space Flight Training Frank Hughes. “Pathogens behave differently in space due to a lack of gravity and don’t settle down like they do on Earth – so that’s a pretty huge problem (with COVID-19).”
Yuen said he has long harbored a passion for anything involving rockets, spaceships or aerospace. During his time at Clements, he has participated on the school’s robotics team and is well-versed in the mechanical aspect of engineering. But this past summer was his first foray into the world of pathogen research, and he said the experience was eye-opening in many ways.
From learning how to work with a team to finding alternative ways of solving problems, he called it a great experience. And though he does not foresee pathogen research in his future – Yuen plans to major in either aerospace engineering or mechanical engineering after high school – he said the experience allowed him to recognize how many perspectives can become one vision, especially when working to provide real-world solutions.
Ultimately, Yuen said the internship helped him expand his horizons, while combining his love of aerospace and desire to help those in his field fight COVID-19 – or any virus – the best they know how.
“We were tasked with solving a problem. … I enjoy solving them,” he said. “And one of the big ones right now is COVID-19. So I wanted to help.”