Summer Autism Internship
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.
The internship program, which was designed to be similar to the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), was co-sponsored by Vanderbilt University and Fisk University. It was funded by an HHMI professor grant to Frist Center Director and Stevenson Professor of Physics and Astronomy Keivan Stassun.
One of the program’s principal investigators, Liviu Matei, is a physicist at Fisk whose lab is working on launching a CubeSat into lower Earth orbit. A CubeSat is a relatively tiny satellite created to collect data. Matei and his team would like to use it detect gamma rays and possibly neutrons in space.
From June 10th through Aug. 3rd, the 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.
One of the internship program’s principal investigators, Geoffrey Burks, spent each day overseeing the interns. Burks is an associate professor of physics at Tennessee State University and an autism self-advocate. Frist Center Associate Director Dave Caudel, PhD’17, collaborated with Burks for almost year to make the Summer Autism Internship a reality. Caudel, who received his doctorate in physics from Vanderbilt, was impressed with the interns’ accomplishments.
“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.”
In addition to seconding Caudel’s sentiment, Burks also 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.
“When you have someone on the spectrum teaching someone on the spectrum, the empathy is there. You see it,” Burks said. “I’m happy that we had people with a range of backgrounds and a range of communication abilities. I found that it worked quite well.”
Burks expressed optimism 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.
The Summer Autism Internship will take place again in summer 2020. 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.
The first year of the internship program was a success, providing research opportunities for a population that often faces difficulty securing internships and employment. Approximately 85 percent of autistic people are un- or under-employed. And for many of those involved, the program was also rewarding on a personal level.
“This has been a very good experience,” Burks said. “I’m doing what I want to do with the people I want to do it with.”