From Creighton to NASA: Recent grad turns her gaze skyward

Rhonda Plofkin a dual-degree holder and spring graduate from Creighton University, started her career this summer at NASA, where she’s building artificial neural networks for use in tornado predictions.

Of all things, it was a Florida vacation that helped set Rhonda Plofkin’s career trajectory.

No, it wasn’t Disney World’s Space Mountain that determined her path. Plofkin was a different kind of Sunshine State tourist.

While visiting the Kennedy Space Center, she watched one of its new weather satellites launch from Cape Canaveral and thought how fantastic it would be to work with the data the satellite would generate.

The next day, she applied for no fewer than 10 NASA internships. She received an offer from her top choice the day she graduated with her master’s in business information and analytics from Creighton University’s Heider College of Business.

Quite the graduation gift.

So she moved to California this summer to intern at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, one of 10 NASA field centers.

Her internship is supported by the Center for Applied Atmospheric Research and Education at San Jose State University, which, in turn, is funded by the NASA Minority Undergraduate and Research Education Program Institutional Research Opportunity program.

Plofkin was tasked with building an artificial neural network, using computer systems, that identified various cloud types. When this initial internship ended in August, Plofkin remained to start a separate, second internship using neural networks for tornado predictions.

She is also an adjunct faculty member at San Jose State University, teaching a course on weather and climate.

Plofkin says she was surprised at — and encouraged by — the vastness of machine-learning and the high level of collaboration between the different scientists at NASA. One evening, while preparing dinner in the kitchen of the lodge where she and many of her colleagues lived, she casually mentioned to an astrophysicist that she was struggling with one piece of her network.

That evening, the two dedicated a few hours to working out the problem together.

Plofkin also received her undergraduate degree from Creighton, through the College of Arts and Sciences. When selecting a graduate program of study, she says she looked for one that would complement her passion for weather while increasing her marketability.

Creighton’s Master of Science in Business Intelligence and Analytics was the perfect fit.

“I bring [to the workplace] a unique perspective, having a science and a business background,” Plofkin says.

Plofkin moved to Nebraska from New Jersey when she was 16 years old. Her academic career took a hiatus as a teen mother, and she raised two teenaged sons while attending Creighton as an undergraduate.

A nontraditional student, she could have just taken her classes and gone home to her family. Instead, she integrated into her new academic home and helped found the University’s Nontraditional Students Union.

Creighton wasn’t just a means to an end; it was a place she belonged, she says. During her first campus visit, Plofkin felt immediately at home.

“I still do every time I come to campus,” she says. “Creighton exceeded my expectations. I often describe it as a place where every teacher is like that favorite teacher you had whom you will never forget. I feel that every person I interacted with at the school had the common interest in doing whatever was within their power to help me learn and succeed.”

So now Plofkin finds herself, unexpectedly, in the classroom again, only this time she is the teacher, not the pupil. She plans to continue to teach at San Jose State University in tandem with her current work project.

The sky’s the limit for the dual-degree holder from Creighton.

Creighton University offers a top-ranked education in the Jesuit, Catholic tradition — and a welcoming, supportive environment to a diverse community of educators, professionals and support staff.  Read more about the university, and connect with Creighton on  Facebook,  Twitter  and  Instagram.

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