To Mars and Beyond: USC Student Plays Role in NASA Mars Mission

| February 17, 2021

Devin Martin, an undergraduate student in computer science, dreamed about working for NASA since he was a child. Last summer, that dream came true.

Devin Martin worked on the 2020 Mars Perseverance Rover and witnessed the launch in person from the Kennedy Space Station. Photo/Devin Martin.

Devin Martin worked on the 2020 Mars Perseverance Rover and witnessed the launch in person from the Kennedy Space Station. Photo/Devin Martin.

When the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover lands on Feb. 18, Devin Martin will be watching with bated breath. Martin, a sophomore computer science and business administration major, wrote flight software for the rover as an intern at NASA last summer. The rover, launched on July 30, will look for signs of past microbial life. Does Martin think it will find any? “I hope so,” he said.

Originally from Michigan, Martin went to space camp as a kid and has been “obsessed” with NASA ever since. “My grandfather has a PhD in psychology and taught African history,” he said. “Growing up, he would tell me about the about the African American female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. Since then, it was my dream to work there someday.”

His dream came true last May, when he embarked on a NASA internship. Working as a software computer systems engineering intern in the ground data system integration and testing team, he analyzed all incoming traffic from the Mars Rover ground data system. The only intern on the team, it was his job to pinpoint and report any anomalies that could indicate a cybersecurity compromise.

Devin Martin worked on the 2020 Mars Perseverance Rover and witnessed the launch in person from the Kennedy Space Station. Photo/Devin Martin.

Devin Martin at the Kennedy Space Center. Photo/Devin Martin.

During the four-month internship, Martin impressed his managers with his blend of energy, professionalism and proficiency. “Few at his age share the incredible drive and passion that Devin brings to his work,” said John Kwok, section manager of mission systems engineering at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“There seems to be no end to what he’s able to take on and he does everything with a professionalism and maturity beyond his years. We look forward to what lies ahead in his surely promising career either at JPL or wherever his passions and endeavors take him.”

Ivy Luong, technical group supervisor of ground data system integration and test for mission system engineering at NASA JPL, added: “his enthusiasm and excitement for space missions and passion for technology will be a great contribution to the future of space exploration.”

High stakes

NASA wasn’t Martin’s first foray into the professional world. At the age of 19, he already has an impressive resume with internships at Google, the National Security Agency and Microsoft. But that doesn’t make him immune to the new-job jitters.

NASA gave him a grace week to get familiar with the code—then it was off to the races. “Oh, I was incredibly nervous,” said Martin. “As the only intern, I was working directly with the head of one of the Mars Rover teams. It makes the work I did even greater, but also the stakes are high.”

But the nerves paid off. Last July, Martin flew to the Kennedy Space Station for launch day. “I got to watch the rover launch into space in person right before my eyes,” said Martin. “I’ll never forget that day. I called my mom and we were both bawling.”

Above: Martin will watch with bated breath as NASA’s Perseverance rover attempts to touch down in the most challenging terrain on Mars ever targeted. Video/NASA-JPL. 

A lifelong passion

Martin comes from a family of physicians—his mother, uncles and grandfather are all in the medical field. He expected to follow in his family’s footsteps, but as he grew older, became more intrigued by technology and its ubiquity.

Devin Martin and his mom, Dr. Crystal Martin, at Google's Office in Downtown Detroit, Michigan. Photo/Devin Martin.

Devin Martin and his mom, Dr. Crystal Martin, at Google’s Office in Downtown Detroit, Michigan. Photo/Devin Martin.

“I realized everything was run by code,” said Martin. “I knew I would have a job for life in computer science, and would still be able to apply my skills to improve people’s lives. That mindset has always stuck with me, because I come from a family that works to help people.”

After high school, he joined Howard University in Washington, D.C., studying electrical and computer engineering. A self-confessed hackathon fanatic, Martin attended 15 hackathons in his freshman year alone.

But for Martin, it didn’t feel like work. “I love, love, love to code,” said Martin. “I love my major. I can’t think of doing anything else in the world. Coding just brings me so much joy and happiness. And so, I love going to hackathons.” Amongst his successes: winning first place in the non-profit track at a Duke University hackathon in 2019 and placing in the top 3 at a Harvard University hackathon in early 2020.

While conducting research in machine learning and deep neural networks at MIT one summer, he built a system to detect distracted driving after losing his friend in a texting and driving accident the year before. It cemented his belief that he had chosen the right major. “During the final presentation, I was fighting back tears,” said Martin. “I thought wow, I want to do computer science for the rest of my life.”

Getting involved

After a year at Howard, Martin felt like he was “missing something.” During this time, he met with NASA representatives a recruitment fair. They said if he was enrolled at a university in Southern California, he could do an in-person internship at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, during the school year.

“When NASA came, I felt like it was God telling me maybe I should get away,” said Martin. “This was an amazing opportunity. Like, maybe USC has something better. And I did find something way better at USC.”

After working at NASA over the summer, virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he worked as a computer science instructor for a semester before joining USC in Spring 2021. Despite not being on campus in person, Martin already is actively involved in university life.

He is an executive board organizer for HackSC, USC’s largest hackathon, and a member of the USC Chapter of the Society for Black Engineers (NSBE) and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). In addition, he has been accepted to Viterbi Trek, the Viterbi Impact Program, the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Scholars Program and Theta Tau at USC, Kappa Epsilon chapter. And if that wasn’t enough, Martin is also doing a real estate investment internship this semester with Project Destined and real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle.

“I definitely feel that USC is my new home,” said Martin. “It’s connected to Silicon Beach. I can network with so many companies and amazing USC startups and incubators. The friends I’ve made online are amazing. I’ve met so many engineers and I just feel so welcome here.”

After graduation, Martin, who is minoring in biotech, said he hopes to go back to medical school, become a computational biologist and work on genetic engineering. “My cousin has Huntington’s disease, so being able to work on technology that could stop people from having Huntington’s disease or cancer—that would be very rewarding.”

This summer, he already has an internship lined up with Medtronic, a medical device company. For Martin, it’s a way of getting back to his roots.  “When I told my mom I was going into computer science, she said– you could become a computational biologist,” said Martin. “So, this is my way of giving back to her.”

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