What is your next adventure?
I will be starting an internship at NASA JPL focusing on entry, descent, and landing [EDL] for the Mars Sample Mission. That's the mission that will be returning to Mars to retrieve the samples that the 2020 Mars Rover will collect. I'm still applying to different graduate schools, but the plan is to enter graduate school this fall. I wanted to stay busy working on something interesting in between.
What about your next adventure are you most looking forward to?
EDL is something I've wanted to do for four years, so this internship is really exciting. They are placing me at the intersection of systems engineering and mechanical engineering, so I'll get to work on both the early portion of the mission and the later parts. For the last three semesters, I've been doing some EDL research, so it will be exciting to see how all of that research applies to an actual engineering project.
Did you have any previous co-op, internship, or research experience in this area?
Internships have been a defining factor in my undergraduate experience. I completed 5 internships - at NASA Langley, Northrop Grumman, Spin Launch, and two rotations at Blue Origin.
At NASA Langley, I was a research intern working on the photo sieve telescope. At Northrop Grumman I was an advanced program systems engineer working on the ISS resupply mission to optimize data processing between the space craft and Earth. At Spin Launch, I was a mechanical engineering intern. At Blue Origin, I did one rotation working as a propulsion engineer for the new Glenn Rocket. On my second rotation, I was a fluid systems engineer working on the human landing system for the moon 2024 mission. T
This internship was really cool. I was the only intern working on a small team that included Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Draper, and Blue Origin. I worked with the smartest people I'd ever worked with. I walked out of every meeting understanding new concepts so much better and really getting a better idea of what I want to work on, long term: systems architecture. I'm really interested in working on the early stages of the mission design, where you get to consider so many options and systems. But, before I can be a jack of all trades, I need to have a deeper technical expertise in a few areas. So I can see that path forward. I want to deepen my understanding of thermo-fluid design and fluid management.
I realized pretty early on in my internships that I liked working on projects more than studying, but the internship experience really underscored how important studying is. All of the fundamentals and the theory you get in class. And every single day of every internship I had, I found I had to use something that I'd learned about in class. It didn't look the same, but that's how you learn. In class you get problem sets with confined constraints where there's usually only one way to solve them. In industry, the problems you get are open-ended, and might involve multiple disciplines. There could be multiple right answers. You are looking for the best one.
At Tech I studied to learn the concepts, not to get the grade, so I really liked these challenges. There were certain internships where I was opening up my textbooks all the time to get a handle on a problem.
My research experience with Prof. Dec over the last three semesters has focused on designing a flexible heat shield that can be used in Mars entry application. Mars has an annoying atmosphere where it's thin enough to not show you down enough on your descent, but it's thick enough where things can get very hot if you move too quickly. The exciting thing about this type of research is that every single thing relates to different knowledge bases within aerospace engineering, so you really have to think big. The great thing about Professor Dec is that he is very well versed in the specifics. He doesn't just tell you things; he also explains why they are important and how they fit into the big picture. He also let me poke around the problem, exploring different things on my own. I always knew he was there to guide me.
How did your educational experience at Georgia Tech help you to achieve your goals?
I would say it's the tremendous opportunities that Tech has offered me from the beginning. I'm being intentionally value here because there are so many opportunities that Tech offers outside the classroom - to work on design project teams, to do research with professors, to join service organizations. I had the ability to shop around, to see what different groups could offer. I was president of the NASA Student Launch team for one year, where we built a rocket. I was also vice president of Sigma Gamma Tau and now I'm vice president of SAESAC. Every time I tried out something new, I met great people along the way.
What advice would you give to an underclassman who would like to follow the same path?
Try everything and talk to everyone. Really.
As far as trying everything: my freshman year, I applied to 200 internships and I got rejected by almost 200 internships. The one that panned out was NASA, and that worked out great. But I also learned that rejection is part of the process. Talking with other students, I saw that we all face it. And what it means is, you've just got to find a way to turn the 'no' around into a 'yes.' For me, I kept looking for ways to improve my knowledge and my skills...and I was met by faculty who welcomed me, encouraged me.
I'd also say that it helps to talk with another student who's been there before. Talking to older students really helped me. So, when I joined Sigma Gamma Tau, we founded a peer mentoring program.