Torry Johnson is a program manager with the Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) in the Office of STEM Engagement at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Johnson’s NASA career started at the Goddard Space Flight Center. He began as an analyst, supporting scientists who study the Earth from space, and over a 15-year period became the assistant deputy director. During this time, Johnson also connected with MUREP programs focused on Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs).
After attending a conference hosted by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), Johnson found an affinity with students who did not always have the resources to succeed in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. For example, “they didn’t all have access to calculus at their school,” Johnson told Career Communications Group (CCG) in a recent Zoom interview.
As MUREP’s manager, Johnson is focused on student success in higher education. This includes undergraduate- and graduate-level students, high school students, and community college students at minority-serving institutions [(MSIs) such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), and TCUs.
“A student interested in STEM might find us at a virtual or in-person conference. Or come across us at NSBE—the National Society of Black Engineers—in the spring,” Johnson said. “Or they might find us at the National Society of Black Physicists in the fall,” he added. “Some students have been exposed to MUREP but are making a decision on a career and how they make that commitment.”
‘How to get started with MUREP’
In addition to internships (in-person and virtual) offered at NASA facilities, MUREP participates in events such as the National Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Week, which falls during the second week in September each year. Last fall, MUREP engaged with the 2021 HBCU Scholars, who were selected as ambassadors by The White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“They got to participate in what we call MITTIC,” Johnson said. “That’s MUREP’s engagement in innovation and technology transfer,” he explained.
The MUREP Innovation Tech Transfer Idea Competition, or MITTIC, is a spinoff challenge established to develop ideas for commercialization by looking at the intellectual property that NASA has created.
“Students get their entrepreneurial game on and talk about what if we used this kind of technology and did something different with it,” Johnson explained. “Students learn to work in teams and develop project management skills because ultimately that’s what we do at NASA,” he added. “We do big and great things, but we do them together. So, we’re trying to infuse that in students, not just future explorers but technicians, innovators, and scientists and engineers.”
‘What MUREP can do for you’
Whether you are getting ready to graduate in two months or eight, looking at internships or pathway opportunities, or simply needing guidance on federal service or graduate school, Johnson says MUREP can provide just the right kind of outlook.
“We try to demystify (NASA) by bringing colleagues that are in engineering, in technical fields, to the booth, to the table, so that the students can hear from someone who has navigated that space,” he said, adding that MUREP’s goal is to move students from commitment to persistence and graduation. “We want them to graduate with these STEM degrees so they can be hirable by NASA and be in the STEM space.”
To do that, MUREP provides funding for minority-serving institutions (MSIs) through research awards for capacity building and infrastructure. MUREP also promotes building up STEM curriculum [at] MSIs and engagement of minority students via internships, fellowships, competitions, and poster sessions.
‘MUREP is how you keep going after NASA’
In 2022, MUREP plans to be at the BEYA STEM Conference scheduled for February 17-19, and Johnson encourages students to visit their booth virtually or in person. He advises students to come prepared to talk about their resumes and how they might make a good fit for opportunities in MUREP, in the Office of STEM Engagement, or across the NASA enterprise. Johnson also encourages students to be persistent.
If you have access to a computer, make it a habit to show up at a MUREP meeting, presentation, or tune in to a webinar. You could even meet MUREP at the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), one of America’s oldest athletic conferences that feature the third-highest attended basketball tournament among all NCAA divisions.
“The middle school student is thinking about NASA in one way,” Johnson said. “The high school student is thinking about college and NASA in another way. The college student is thinking about getting a career going,” he added. “So, we look at all of these linkages as a great study on how you keep going after NASA. MUREP works to be a trusted source for STEM, and we want to make NASA a part of your career journey,” Johnson said.