During her first visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center when she was eight years old, Megan Bull ’21 announced to her dad she wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up. A return trip when she was 16 found her no less resolute.
“I was in total awe watching a video on the Mars exploration program,” she recalled. “I leaned over to my mom and told her I would work at NASA one day.”
Bull’s dream will come to fruition this summer when she embarks on a ten-week virtual internship with NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The mathematics major with a concentration in data science will be participating in the Enrich Knowledge Graphs Through Graph Data Science intern project from June 7 – August 13. She will help create a people analytics knowledge graph using Neo4j (Network Exploration and Optimization 4 Java), a graph database management system designed to leverage data relationships and associate data as it is stored.
“Every organization collects data, but not many people know what to do with it,” Bull explained. “The idea is to be able to use the data we already have to predict trends: look at things that have happened and anticipate the likelihood of other things happening. The project itself focuses on occupation data within NASA and skills associated with certain professions. The objective is to analyze the similarities between jobs that share the same sets of skills and predict which people would be successful in these positions given their previous experience.”
When Bull first learned about the internship from Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematics Molly Lynch, “I knew it would be a long shot, but I was going to apply anyway,” she said, motivated by the goal she had steadfastly remained committed to through a significant part of her life. Later that same week, she took part in a Hollins Alumnae Board virtual event for seniors.
“Elizabeth Kolmstetter ’85 was one of the participants and she urged anyone who was interested to check out NASA internships.” Kolmstetter is NASA’s director of talent strategy and engagement.
Bull let Kolmstetter know that she was already working on her application, and that set the stage for a powerful example of how the Hollins alumnae network supports undergraduates in their career preparation. Kolmstetter gave Bull her email address, and the two scheduled a Face Time meeting the following evening.
“She served as my mentor throughout the application process,” Bull said. Kolmstetter subsequently told her that David Meza, chief knowledge architect at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., was heading up the Enrich Knowledge Graphs Through Graph Data Science intern project, and would like to interview her.
“I thought it sounded fantastic,” Bull related. “A couple of hours after the interview, I received an email telling me I’d been selected for this internship. I called my mom (Rebecca Boone Bull ’90) – I was screaming over the phone – and my roommates were laughing. ‘We were going to ask you how your interview went, we guess it went well!’”
Bull was excited to share her senior project, “Examining Bias in Facial Recognition Programs,” with Meza. He told Bull he was particularly impressed with her commitment to learning new things, and her range of skills.
“Graph data science is not something I’ve worked with previously,” she said. “It’s something that’s entirely new to me, so he’s sending me resources on a daily basis to review.”
Bull’s internship with NASA will be the culmination of a Hollins career that began when she first toured the campus as a high school junior with her mom. “I fell in love with it. I loved how open everyone was, students kept coming up and asking me what I was interested in and what I wanted to do. Hollins was one of my first college visits, so it really just set the precedent.” A mentorship program that matched high school students with women in STEM professions encouraged her to pursue a mathematics major, and a class in the Google Applied Computing Series taught by mathematics professors Julie Clark and Steve Wassell convinced her to concentrate on data science.
“I was never interested in computer science until then, and Dr. Wassell is the reason I decided to pursue data science,” Bull said. She praises the entire mathematics faculty for how “they are able to nurture every single student who comes through. Dr. Clark has been my advisor since I declared. She’s been an amazing mentor and she’s wickedly smart. Seeing a woman who is just so successful in her career, it was so inspiring. I’d never really seen that before in academia.” She adds that Wassell has helped her figure out where to apply for graduate school, and that he, Clark, and Director of Quantitative Reasoning Erin Levering have all been generous in writing recommendation letters on her behalf.
Majoring in mathematics led to Bull tutoring for Hollins’ Quantitative Reasoning Center beginning in her sophomore year. She has served as an Honor Court member, vice president for the class of 2021, and member of the swim team for three of her four years. She’s also finishing a certificate in leadership studies from the university’s Batten Leadership Institute and works as ambassador for the university’s Office of Admission. “I’ve been an admission ambassador since my first year,” she said. “I started doing it because I love Hollins so much, and I want other people to love it as much as I do.”
Beyond campus, Bull has enjoyed two study abroad opportunities, spending Spring Term 2019 in London and the 2020 January Short Term in Florence, Italy. She’s completed two internships as well, one with Boyd-Pearman Photography in Roanoke her first year, and the second during her sophomore year that brought one of the most impactful experiences of her life full circle.
“Working with our Career Center, I created my own remote internship with Women in Technology (WIT) in Falls Church, Virginia,” an organization dedicated to advancing women in the field through leadership development, technology education, and networking and mentoring. Bull interned with WIT’s Girls in Technology initiative, the same program that placed her with women who are STEM professionals while she was in high school.
As she preps for her NASA internship this summer, Bull is busy applying to graduate schools. She plans to pursue a Master of Science in computer science but has not made a final decision on where she will be attending graduate school in the fall.
“I would really like to go into artificial intelligence engineering and machine learning,” she said. “They play pretty well together.”