Rockledge teen earns summer science opportunities

Gabriel Cenker was selected for the STEM Enhancement in Earth and Space Sciences summer internship.

When Gabriel Cenker, 17, couldn’t find mosquito larvae in dozens of Brevard County water samples during his first formal research with a NASA program, he was surprised. 

"But I wasn’t complaining about not finding any. I even built extra traps and put them where there should have been mosquitos and I still couldn’t find larvae," Cenker said. 

As one of 313 national students selected for the STEM Enhancement in Earth and Space Sciences summer internship, his team studied correlations between population density and mosquito numbers. 

"We found that rural areas had the most mosquito habitat," Cenker said. Second were heavily populated urban areas, with mid-populated areas housing the fewest mosquitoes.

The Mosquito Mappers internship, sponsored by NASA’s Texas Space Grant Consortium, provided NASA satellite data, a mobile device clip-on microscope, other tools and training in safety procedures, mosquito identification and habitat. 

"The goal of the NASA STEM Enhancement in Earth Science project is to encourage more students to major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. When the university could not host students on campus, the experts felt strongly that they could provide a worthwhile opportunity virtually," said Margaret R. Baguio, the program manager of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas at Austin.

"I couldn’t work directly with scientists and engineers, but I got to do real work that matters," Cenker said.

Mosquitoes weren’t the only thing Cenker investigated this summer. He also studied atomic nuclei of stars and careers in geosciences. The Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics’ Center at Michigan State University provided a two-week intensive virtual classroom.

Cenker, two other high school students and a mentor investigated how changing variables affected production of specific elements within stars. Texas A&M University’s College of Geosciences two-week on-line exploration program showed Cenker the importance of various earth science occupations, such as oceanography and atmospheric science.

"Now, I want to do more research at college," Cenker said. 

He is home-schooled through Florida Virtual with help from his mom Jennifer, a former kindergarten teacher. The straight-A senior, dual enrolled in Eastern Florida State College, hopes to become an engineer or scientist, possibly in meteorology.

"He’s worked really hard. It’s an incredible accomplishment," Jennifer Cenker said. 

Her husband David said Gabe has always been curious. "Now he’s curious about the universe, the rockets going into space, everything."