David Jovel's doctoral research is focusing on understanding the electrical connection between the ionized Hall effect thruster plume and the conductive walls of ground-based vacuum facilities.
Christopher D. Roper's doctoral research is focusing on plasma instabilities in high-speed plasma dynamic sources - a key challenge for the next generation of NASA space missions.
The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) recently announced that two Georgia Tech Aerospace Engineering students, Christopher D. Roper and David Jovel, have been selected to receive the 2021 State Doctoral Award.
The award supports the academic aspirations of students from under-represented groups by providing financial help, professional mentorship, and networking opportunities during their doctoral studies. SREB researchers have found that more than one-third of the college students in the U.S.are people of color; less than 10 percent of college faculty in the U.S. are from these groups. The scholarship seeks to disrupt this trend.
For Jovel and Roper, the SREB support affords them an unbridled freedom to expand not just their knowledge, but their intellect. Both young men are keen on the difference.
"While I am very grateful for the sponsors that have supported my research to this point, this award means that I can pursue questions and problems that I am personally interested in," said Roper.
"And that has been my goal all along."
Christopher Roper: The struggle is easy when you've already won
Born into a military family in Germany, Christopher D. Roper spent his early years in Texas, where he quickly learned that a curious mind was his ticket to adventure.
That adventure continues to this day.
“In seventh grade, I got hooked on physics when I was involved in this after-school program where they introduce you to robotics,” he says.
“The thing that really attracted me to physics was, well, they have more questions than answers. And, also, it’s a discipline that applies to everything – philosophy, science, and, yes, engineering. It gave me perspective that gave me the momentum to tackle really hard questions.”
“And that comes in handy for aerospace engineering. My advisors, Dr. Walker and Dr. Mavris demand your best.”
Like many engineering students before him, Roper knew early on he had a passion for ‘things that fly,' but had no idea where that would take him. He did know that he didn't want to restrict himself to the ‘how’; he wanted to know ‘why’ about everything he studied. As a high school student, he recalls, not everyone was a cheerleader.
“There were some who questioned whether the direction I was taking was something I could actually do,” he said.
“Everyone’s story is different, but for me, that just motivated me to pursue it. Yes, I was the first in my family to go for a PhD, but I always knew I was a hard worker. And that's what it takes. So the struggle is easy when you know you’ve already won.”
Roper wasn’t just a hard worker. He was ambitious. And smart.
As an undergraduate at Kennesaw State University, he earned a BS in mechanical engineering alongside two minors - one in aerospace engineering and the other in mathematics. He also earned a BS in physics from the University of West Georgia. When he came to Georgia Tech, he wanted to build on his knowledge of experimental and computational methods, so he brokered a co-advisor arrangement with Prof. Dimitri Mavris - the head of the Aerospace Systems Design Lab - and Prof. Mitchell Walker - the head of the High Power Electric Propulsion Lab.
"My first year, I got a chance to learn a lot about computational methods -- statistical analysis, surrogate modeling, experiment design -- in the ASDL," he said. "Now, I will get a chance to leverage those resources to do plasma physics and space propulsion research with Dr. Walker."
As a NASA Pathways intern, Roper has worked both at the Jet Propulsion Lab and the Glenn Research Center. He has also interned as a control systems engineer at Boeing. He says both experiences have made him more malleable, flexible, and adaptable -- three qualities he hopes to pass on to up-and-coming engineers.
"Being a young professional, you don't want to waste the time they are investing in you. You want to be perfect. But looking back, now, I see that the mistakes I made on my internships motivated me. They showed me that there's a delta for me to learn. And that gave me confidence about the path I am on. I hope to share that with anyone I mentor."
David Jovel: My mentors make me a better researcher every day
Born in New York, David Jovel absorbed a strong work ethic from his parents, who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador. As a young man, his father had harbored ambitions of becoming an agricultural engineer, but when civil and political violence in his homeland forced him to move, those ambitions morphed into providing his family with opportunities for a better future in the United States.
"The thing is, he worked hard to provide us a safe and stable life, even after my mother died at a young age and we had to move to Texas," says Jovel. "I will always respect that."
For Jovel, that respect morphed into a career path that took him to the Aerospace Corporation, where he worked as an engineer for several years before coming to Georgia Tech to pursue a doctorate. Along the way, he saw again and again that mentorship was a necessary ingredient for success. While his research in the High Power Electric Propulsion Lab is often all-consuming, he has never thought twice about supporting undergrad and incoming grad students.
"Part of the reason I came to graduate school later than most is because no one told me graduate school was really an option when I was younger. I didn't have a mentor. After I earned my undergraduate degree, I was working at the Aerospace Corporation where one of my colleagues literally said to me 'Hey, dude, I got a Ph.D. and it was awesome - best decision I ever made. It gives you a lot of freedom to work on the projects you find interesting. You can do it. You should do it.'"
Those words launched Jovel on a journey that continues to inspire his coursework, teaching, research, and mentoring at Tech. There's always too much to do, he admits, but being busy hasn't dampened the thrill of learning. Right now, his time is split between lab work and the literature review for his dissertation.
And he's on fire.
"It blows me away that I get to read some amazing research papers written long before I came along. Some of the papers, I'd read before, but it's amazing, as I read them again, now, I have new insight on what they were thinking and doing," he says.
The intensity of Jovel's commitment has attracted support from other philanthropic organizations, including the GEM Scholarship program, and, recently, the Hispanic Scholarship Foundation.
"I hope to be an asset for the SREB organization and help the next generation of students realize their potential as researchers," he said. "I’ve been lucky. I have a great advisor - Dr. Walker - and amazing labmates that make me a better researcher every day. "