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First-ever Summer Autism Internship concludes

Posted by on Tuesday, August 6, 2019 in News.

In summer 2019, the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation held its first-ever Summer Autism Internship. Interns included a cohort of participants and their mentors – almost all of whom were on the autism spectrum. Their goal was to learn STEM skills and conduct research in support of the NASA Neurodiversity partnership between labs at Fisk University and Vanderbilt University.

5 summer interns Dan Burger, Josh Wade, Noah Austin, Kurt Jones, and Ben Perlin. May include David Caudel (faculty) in the group shot. autism Photos by: Susan Urmy
Noah Austin and Preston Batts (Photo by: Susan Urmy)

The internship program, which was designed to be similar to the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), is now sponsored by Vanderbilt University. It was funded by an HHMI professor grant to Frist Center Director and Stevenson Professor of Physics and Astronomy Keivan Stassun.

From June 10th through Aug. 3rd, 2019, the initial group of five interns reported to the new Frist Center space in the Innovation Pavilion. The two participants, Preston Batts and Eric Mather-Burks, began the summer by learning about how a CubeSat works. Then, they utilized that coding and astrophysics knowledge to research possible improvements to the CubeSat design. Their mentors, Noah Austin, Tristan Kindig and Ben Perlin, facilitated this process and made their own contributions to the research.

Frist Center Associate Director Dave Caudel, PhD’17, works year-round to make the Summer Autism Internship a reality. Caudel, who received his doctorate in physics from Vanderbilt, was impressed with the interns’ accomplishments.

5 summer interns Dan Burger, Josh Wade, Noah Austin, Kurt Jones, and Ben Perlin. May include David Caudel (faculty) in the group shot. autism Photos by: Susan Urmy
Ben Perlin (Photo by: Susan Urmy)

“Noah designed code to help streamline data flow between the CubeSat and ground forces,” he said. “And the two participants helped design a simple but elegant deployable antenna, capable of handling a violent launch into space and staying highly resistant to mechanical failure.”

Adult leaders of the program emphasized how the mentor-participant model allowed the mentors to develop leadership skills. The three recent college graduates learned how to collaborate with each other and effectively communicate with the younger participants. And since many of the mentors and both of the participants were autistic, there was a mutual understanding of how neurodiversity can alter communication and information processing.

The Frist Center is optimistic that the Summer Autism Internship will grow in the coming years, as word of the programs spreads. Caudel is envisioning future classes of internship participants being at least partially drawn from the Center’s Workforce Readiness and Preparation (WRaP) camp graduates. WRaP is a program designed to assess the talents of teens on the autism spectrum and teach them job skills. This summer, Batts was the only participant to have previously graduated from the WRaP camp.

Photo by: Susan Urmy
Eric Mather-Burks (Photo by: Susan Urmy)

The Summer Autism Internship will take place again in summer 2021. You may apply to be a mentor if you are currently completing or have just completed your bachelor’s degree. You may apply to be a participant if you are a young adult (at least 18 yrs old) on the autism spectrum with an interest in science.

Anyone curious about being either a mentor or participant next summer is encouraged to check back on the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation website in the spring, when more information should become available.


  • Peter Sweeney

    September 3rd, 2020

    I am interested in any internship opportunities for a Physics major on the autism spectrum. Your NASA neurodiversity partnership is of particular interest. Please let me know of any similar opportunities that may be upcoming in the Fall of 2020. Thank you