From Bangladesh to NASA, via UND

NASA internship latest accomplishment for Manna Khan, immigrant and nontraditional, first-generation college student

Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

If over the summer someone ventures up Harvard Street, north of Archives Coffee House, they might see Manna Khan tending UND’s newest crop.

The result of an effort led in part by Khan and fellow students and faculty, the recently established two-plot campus garden has turned a demolition site into a place to grow, learn and share.

Later this summer, Khan hopes to reap the harvest of seeds sown. But meanwhile, at home, wired into one of the most technologically advanced agencies on the planet, Khan is sowing seeds of a different kind.

Khan is a McNair Scholar who’s earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography at UND. She’s well on her way to a doctoral degree in Earth System Science & Policy (ESSP).

And this summer, to top it off, she’s also interning at NASA. Khan was selected for a paid, virtual internship at the space agency. That means she’s spending her summer here in Grand Forks not only gardening, but also working and interacting via computer with some of the world’s top experts in her field.

Not bad, for a nontraditional student who grew up in Bangladesh, and who struggled with English when she first enrolled at UND.

“I appreciate all your help and support throughout my academic journey,” Khan wrote earlier this summer in a thank-you note to her UND colleagues.

“This journey, I started with very little English with Dr. (Paul) Todhunter’s class. It has been quite a lot of experiences as a non-traditional, bi-lingual, and first-generation immigrant. As a slow learner, I had to translate every word from Bengali to English and from English to Bengali.

“Every day, I am still learning from you. Thank you!”

The campus garden effort and her recent inroads at NASA are driven by Khan’s sense of stewardship, both socially and ecologically. Her long term goal is simply stated: “I have to do something for the world, for the next generation. I want to leave something for my children.”

Besides using her green thumb in Grand Forks, Khan is working with NASA’s History Division. Using NASA’s database of satellite and ground measurements, Khan will study tropical cyclones, coastal flooding and related hazards in Bangladesh and Southeast Asia.

“As a dual citizen, I feel for both of my countries,” Khan said. “But what I’m learning from UND, and now from NASA, are skills and knowledge that I want to implement globally, especially in developing countries where people are suffering from the effects of climate issues.

“Where I help doesn’t have to be in Bangladesh – it can be anywhere in the world, wherever I can go.”

Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

From Bangladesh to Grand Forks

Khan’s journey at UND began shortly after she and her family moved to Grand Forks from California. Khan and her husband, Shafiqul, had operated a business for some time after emigrating from Bangladesh 25 years ago, but thought North Dakota would be a better place to raise their son, Ahad, and daughter, Newzaira, as well as advance themselves.

“We had experience, but we didn’t have degrees,” Khan said. “So, when we decided to close and move, we wanted to go somewhere better for our children that also had affordable opportunities for education.”

For a time, Khan, her husband and daughter were all enrolled at UND in different fields. Shafiqul is soon to finish a Ph.D. in the College of Education & Human Development. Newzaira graduated with a degree in psychology and has since moved to the East Coast to pursue a Ph.D. of her own.

At UND, Khan has tried to make the most of her opportunities. Perhaps the most pivotal of those was the McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program – a program designed to prepare first-generation college students for post-graduate studies through research experiences and scholarly activity.

Through the mentoring and support of the McNair Program, specifically under Instructor Christopher Atkinson, UND’s Geography Department became a second family for Khan. Atkinson noted that Khan’s McNair-tied research spanned from Bangladesh to the Red River Valley.

Douglas Munski

“She researched topics including recycling, trash and tipping fees as well as water and water pollution in Bangladesh, and increasing temperatures in North Dakota,” Atkinson said. “She represented UND well at many regional and national geography conferences.”

Multiple professors told UND Today that as a graduate teaching assistant, Khan has been indispensable and goes out of her way to help others succeed.

“Out of the 43 years I’ve been here, Manna is among the best GTAs I’ve worked with,” said Department Chair and Professor Douglas Munski. “She’s someone who doesn’t rest on her laurels. She looks to her laurels to leverage them, so that we all benefit. … She’s an exceptional role model for the department.”

How to become a NASA intern

Professor Gregory Vandeberg is the UND-based mentor for Khan’s NASA internship.

Gregory Vandeberg

“Being the professor for many courses she took, and being able to work with her in multiple capacities, I’ve watched Manna develop into someone who knows quite a bit about geography,” Vandeberg said. “Just to see her meet all the different challenges of life on top of being a great student, and a great academic, that’s been fun to watch.”

When asked how she has faced the challenges of her situation – being foreign-born with English as a second language, and entering UND at an older age than most of her peers – Khan quickly answers, “I’m not a shy person.”

She has never been afraid of asking questions, of reaching out via email or searching for the answers herself. Her approach has been as helpful in finding opportunities as it has been in learning the finer points of American English, including connecting with UND writing classes, speech therapy and Career Services.

“I learned how to write a resume, a cover letter, all kinds of stuff that way,” Khan remarked. “I reach out to people, I send an email. Some people don’t respond, others do, but that’s how I’ve connected with a lot of people.”

This is more or less how she found an opportunity at NASA. After connecting with the NASA-funded North Dakota Space Grant Consortium (NDSGC) in the past, for research and travel grants, she maintained her “why not” attitude when sending her resume the world’s foremost space agency.

(Khan’s internship is supported by a stipend from NDSGC, which is a form of support available only to nine or so North Dakota-based interns each term, out of dozens of applicants.)

Success is a matter of trying

Though the exact scope of Khan’s internship research still is being determined, the main idea is that she will be documenting the ways in which NASA has observed water resources and flooding in South Asia over time.

And with her upcoming dissertation examining the effects of mitigating the Red River, following the flood of 1997, it’s easy to see how her background, geography, UND and NASA all have affected Khan.

Rebecca Romsdahl

“Manna is a great student and a wonderful person whom I’d describe as a ‘go-getter,’” said Professor Rebecca Romsdahl, Khan’s advisor and a fellow campus garden architect. “When she sets her mind to accomplish something, she puts her full energy and passion toward doing just that. And she has a great record of success in her goals.”

If you ask Khan, she’ll tell you that her success is simply a matter of putting herself out there and trying. If it doesn’t work out, try again, or find another viable path. She pointed to her most recent accomplishment – attaining a NASA internship – as a prime example.

“If you look for the right path, you can tie it with something you know,” Khan said. “Even though I’m not an engineer, a microbiologist or aerospace expert, I did research and found a way I could tie to NASA. Whatever your subject is, there are good options – you likely have some skills that others can use.”