By: Katie Chappell
Some children grow up wanting to be firefighters, ballerinas, veterinarians. As a little girl, Natalia Efremova only dreamed of going up to space with NASA.
She began her educational career at Irvine Valley College (IVC) in the fall of 2016. After starting out in finance, she had found a passion in computer science.
“I made the most out of my experience here at IVC,” said Natalia. “The classes taught me a lot about my field, but they also just taught me how to learn.”
Her computer science courses also fueled her interest in teaching others. As a college student she often balanced three part-time jobs. One of those positions was teaching kids to code through Cod.Ed Academy, where she works with 3rd-5th graders in Diamond Bar, Fullerton and Garden Grove school districts, showing them the basic building blocks of coding language.
“I love teaching, because the kids are awesome,” Natalia shared. “I get to create activities that are fun for them, to get them interested in exploring computer science.”
As an IVC student in the STEM field, Natalia says she received lots of emails from professors with opportunities – for internships, research projects and conferences. But last spring, one email particularly stood out.
It was from NASA.
In college, Natalia thought her childhood dream of being an aerospace engineer would never happen – but this was her opportunity. She submitted an application to the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars Program (NCAS), built up the courage to ask two professors for recommendation letters, and then waited.
She was thrilled to get the email weeks later that she was one of the 600 students that were accepted. But this was only the first step. Her initial acceptance was into a 5-week online course, that concluded with a final project and a 10-page paper.
While there were no technical pre-requisites to get into the NCAS program, it was a demanding five weeks. NCAS is a program sponsored by the NASA Minority University Research Education Program (MUREP). Natalia sat in on webinars from all different types of NASA engineers that worked on real-life projects, including a computer scientist in robotics. It was then she realized that even computer science majors could have a future in space exploration.
“Hearing the message that you can find your place at NASA no matter your science background really boosted my confidence,” Natalia said. “This program gives you the opportunity to learn at your own skill level.”
Natalia placed in the top 3% of her classmates and landed a coveted spot in one of NASA’s onsite workshops in the fall.
Her professors weren’t surprised by her success. Professor Chan Loke had Natalia as a student in his computer science courses at IVC.
“Natalia was one of those exceptional students who was able to write all the programs I gave her, and excelled,” Professor Loke said. “She is very bright. I think she will have a great future in whatever she decides to pursue.”
In October, Natalia headed to NASA’s Ames Research Facility in Mountain View for an onsite residential experience that included four days of hands-on workshops with 40 fellow program participants working on robotics. She also got a chance to see firsthand what it would be like to work in a NASA facility.
“This is a really cool thing to say I’ve been a part of,” Natalia said. “I definitely feel that it’s helped me explore a future career that combines both my love for aerospace engineering and NASA, with my newfound passion for computer science.”
Natalia finished up her degree at IVC and transferred to the University of California, Irvine this fall, where she is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science.