Hisham K. Ali

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Hisham K. Ali
Ph.D. AE '19

After you graduate, what is your next adventure?

I will be staying in Atlanta as a post-doc, doing work centered around my doctoral dissertation in mageneto hydronamics (HMD). I'll be looking at ways to use re-entry plasma - the plasma that's created when a vehicle re-enters the Earth's atmosphere - to generate electrical energy and control the vehicle. That project - funded by NASA Langley - goes until November.

What about your next adventure are you most looking forward to?

The thing I'm most looking forward to is being able to pursue in-depth research that can have significant impact on human space flight and exploration. I came from a structural-aeronautics background, and I always wanted to get more involved in space. It is my dream, if called upon, to help send humans to Mars. My goal is to be one of the people who has the skills needed to do that, so my plan, from here, is to work for a lab - Sandia, NASA Langley and JPL are all interesting - where I can work independently on my research, but, also to learn more so I can bring that knowledge back to the academy. I think there's a lot of synergy between hypersonics and plasma physics that could, eventually, be beneficial for travel to the outer planets - like Neptune and Jupiter - as well as the inner planets.  

Did you have any previous co-op, internship, or research experience in this area?

Georgia Tech has been an amazing place to pursue research. It's been the highlight of my master's and doctoral studies over the last six years.

I came to the AE School with an NSTRF (NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship) that sent me to a NASA facility to intern every year. That started at NASA Marshall, where I did research on fundamental plasma physics. Using that information, I was the first author on a technical memorandum that was published in 2015. Then I went to NASA Langley where the work I did on systems analysis showed me how my work could not only benefit my research, but could also impact future NASA missions as well. There, again, I was the first author on a paper. I spent two summers interning at JPL (NASA Jet Propulsion Lab) where I was able to create a supersonic plasma wind tunnel. At the conclusion of the fellowship, the success of that wind tunnel was such that NASA arranged to have an equipment loan, so it could come back here to Tech. 

How did your educational experience at Georgia Tech help you to achieve your goals?

My work at Tech gave me a chance to bring my research to life, to make a mindful contribution to the field. That's always been my goal. At Tech, that's supported with great researchers, like Prof. Walker, and by world-class facilities, like the High Power Electric Propulsion Lab. Without the vacuum chamber in that lab, I would not have been able to do anything. But it was there, available to me.

The research I did through Tech got me involved in the complete circle of engineering -- from idea, to design, to concept study, to building, and, finally, to testing. A few weeks ago, I was able to show that you can extract electric energy from high-speed plasma flow.

I also got a chance to travel to Europe, twice, to present my work. I will be going again this summer. What I've noticed, when I travel, is that Georgia Tech is always really well represented at these professional meetings. We are a part of the larger conversation. That's exciting for me.

What advice would you give to an underclassman who would like to follow the same path?

I have a younger sister who is really quite bright, so I'll have to try not to be too overbearing here.
I'd have to say - and I think it's been said - use the word 'impossible' very carefully, and realize that creation and invention require a lot of failure and determination - more of both of these qualities than anything else. If you believe you can do something, do the groundwork to make it happen on your own. Maybe it's because I was self-funded [through NSTRF] but I learned how to pitch an idea that I thought was worthwhile.

Don't be afraid to write an email to someone who might be able to help you out. Early on, in grad school, I ran into someone at a workshop and told him about my ideas for research. He was very established in the field, much higher up than I was, but he was intrigued by what I said and helped me to make it happen.

So what I took from this was to not be afraid if you have a good idea. The initiative needs to come from you. Georgia Tech will support that, but it won't necessarily be a cake walk, especially if your idea diverges from what your lab is doing. What I did [at Tech] was different from what I originally thought I was going to do. I came here to do in-situ research utilization -- ISRU -- with 3D printing. What I ended up doing was, well, maybe ISRU but in an entirely different area -- extracting electrical energy.

You will need to work hard - nothing is ever as simple as it seems at first, but that might be the very reason that you'll appreciate what you learn. There's something to be said for tenacity.