After you graduate, what is your next adventure?
I am moving to the Washington, DC area to work at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab as a senior professional staff. I'll be focusing on space debris - detecting it, figuring out how to remove it and how to prevent collisions with active and non-active objects
What about your next adventure are you most looking forward to?
Secretly? [smiles] I'm looking forward to getting a real paycheck. I'll be able to afford real seafood, not the Atlanta version. [laughs] Seriously, though, I don't want to make it sound like it's all about money, but it certainly helps to see that all of my efforts as a grad student and a researcher are going to be compensated. I realize that, getting the Hope Scholarship as an undergrad and the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship [NSTRF] in grad school, I'm one of the fortunate few who will graduate without debt. And I'm grateful for that. Now that I'm leaving grad school, I'll have a different lifestyle, though, and that's exciting. There are a ton of aerospace types in the D.C area, and I'm excited about joining that community and experiencing a different culture. And I'm really excited about joining this particular lab, because they do some really impactful work. If you Google Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, you'll see they have worked on many NASA missions and have collaborated on a lot of really important research. I definitely won't be bored there.
Did you have any previous co-op, internship, or research experience in this area?
In graduate school, as a NSTRF fellow, I had to do a NASA internship every summer. The beautiful part was, I got to choose which [NASA] center I went to based on what I wanted to pursue. So my first summer I went to NASA Ames in California and did a good amount of planning for my Ph.D. work. It was the most research-y summer I ever had; I spent it all developing the math and theory that would inform my [doctoral] thesis. And the great part of an NSTRF is that they give you a NASA advisor who listens to what you want to do and then connects you with people who can help you get there. So, I had a great advisor at Tech [Prof. Marcus Holzinger] and another one at NASA [Dr. Stefan Schuet]. The second summer, I went to NASA Goddard where I worked on collision avoidance research. This work focused on how to maneuver your satellite when its trying to rendezvous with another satellite, to dock for instance, and things don't go the way you expected. Well, in the real world, in space, nothing every goes the way you planned. Collision avoidance is critical. At Goddard, I got to apply a lot of the reachability research I'd been doing with Holzinger during the year. The next summer, I went back to Ames where we worked on maneuverability and recoverability applications -- applications that take into account unplanned things - like wind gusts -so that your satellite can get from point A to point B. This is when I was able to take the software programs I'd developed the first two years and apply it to problems that needed to be tackled. I also did some work on applications that help you find a good landing zone on another planet. When you are trying to land on Mars or on the moon, you might have a nominal trajectory, but any number of random things could throw you off, so you need to build in controllers to get you to a desired location. It's a very very interesting problem.
How did your educational experience at Georgia Tech help you to achieve your goals?
Over the 8 years I was at Tech, internships played a massive role in transforming me from a high school kid to a doctoral graduate. As an undergrad, I came in as an undeclared engineering major. The internships let me test out what subjects and what fields I liked, and what piqued my interest. It was through internships that I chose aerospace engineering as a major, space as my niche, and guidance, navigation and control (GNC) as my specialty. Each one of the internships I did as an undergrad taught me something I needed to know about where I should go. I have to give them a lot of credit.
The classes at Tech gave me a lot of knowledge, but it changed over time. As an undergraduate, all of the fundamental knowledge you have to gain in all of the classes you have to take, well, it's like drinking from a fire hose. All of it's important, but it's a lot. As a graduate student, Tech gave me a chance to deep dive into the subject matter. The workload went down, classwise, but the rigor stepped up. I didn't have to take as many classes, but I had to prove I was thinking. The quality of what was expected from me went way up.
What advice would you give to an underclassman who would like to follow the same path?
Once you have gotten into Tech, you can check one thing off: you'll earn a degree that will get you a job. You've already done that, just by getting in and graduating. Once you realize that, it takes a little pressure off and you can take advantage of the other things around you - the great courses, the work experiences, and, of course, the friendships.
The people are important. As an undergrad, I had a ready-made group of friends right from the beginning that I met through the Challenge program. We all went through an intense five-week program right before freshman year. It was designed to acclimate us to college life, and we always stayed in touch. I also connected with students through NSBE [National Society of Black Engineers], and the African American Student Union. As a graduate student, I shifted more toward the Space System Design Lab, where I got to know other grad students, and my advisor, Prof. Marcus Holzinger. He, especially, sat me down and said 'If you are interested in this, you should apply for fellowships.' Then he helped me to map out the problems that I might want to tackle in grad school. Finding people who'll support you like that, well, it makes all the difference.