Dreams took flight during MITES for NASA technologist

Dr. Aprille Ericcson, a 1980 alumnae of MITES, is Deputy to the Chief Technologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Dr. Aprille Ericcson, a 1980 alumna of MITES, is Deputy to the Chief Technologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Seventeen-year-old Aprille Ericsson strapped into the flight simulator at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Massachusetts, while taking part in MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) in 1980 during the summer before her senior year. A talented student from Brooklyn expecting to pursue a law degree, this was her closest experience to piloting an aircraft. An affinity for aerospace was born when she stepped out of the simulator and saw her score –103, just three points from perfect. “That was my first real interest in aeronautics and astronautics,” she says. Since taking part in MITES, Ericsson has held several positions in the aerospace industry, including her current job as Deputy to the Chief Technologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Now, she works to identify gaps in technology and enable researchers to fulfill those future technological needs.

Ericsson’s high school algebra teacher, also an MIT alum, recommended the MITES program, formerly UNITE, which she later attended. The program today runs for six weeks in June and July and gives engineering and science-inclined students the chance to experience life and college-level courses at MIT during the summer between their junior and senior years. While on campus, MITES students create meaningful networks of friends and staff, and most MITES alumni go on to study science and engineering at top universities. Ericsson pursued her undergraduate degree at MIT and her graduate study at Howard, where she became the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at the university.

During MITES, Ericsson learned about her growing desire to help people and found fellow students who shared her excitement for learning. The combination of intrinsically motivated students and encouraging instructors and teaching assistants gave her confidence to enter the aerospace field. “The people supporting the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs are really bright people I still admire,” says Ericsson.

MITES also taught Ericsson how to handle crises. During a bridge building competition, she injured her finger while feverishly trying to finish the project. “I learned to work under duress, in short periods of time. I learned to accomplish things and put my mind to it,” says Ericsson. Despite her injury, she was able to return and finish her bridge for the competition. The ability to thrive under strict time constraints and stressful situations was a critical skill she developed at MITES. Under the inspiration of MITES, Ericsson attended MIT a year later.

In July 1980 during MITES, Ericcson learned to work in high pressure scenarios during a bridge building competition.

In July 1980 during MITES, Ericcson learned to work in high pressure scenarios during a bridge building competition.

After MITES and MIT, Ericsson entered the workforce and found a series of fulfilling positions. “I find it particularly enticing to improve people’s lives and make them easier,” says Ericsson. “The projects that I work on have to be impactful in our communities. They have to be positive and not destructive.” Instead of working on missile defense, Ericsson attended graduate school at Howard University, where she developed control algorithms for applications like the International Space Station. While a Ph.D. intern, she joined the ranks of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, creating methods of attitude control simulation and software testing.

Along with creating useful technologies that benefit people on a larger scale, Ericsson enjoys the thrill of solving complex problems. “When you’re trying to obtain a goal, you don’t know how many steps you’ll need to take,” says Ericsson. “Spending an entire lifetime on helping to solve questions and problems is really cool.”

Ericsson has also devoted herself to empowering young women and minorities interested in STEM careers. She has done this though active membership in the NASA GSFC Speakers Bureau as a Mentor and University Professor, and previously as an aerospace teacher for students at Howard University Public Charter Middle School of Math & Science.

Ericsson advises aspiring scientists and engineers to maintain high hopes for the future and seek out opportunities with patience and perseverance. “The prizes of life are at the end of each journey,” she says. “Have lofty goals, believe in them and you will achieve them. You will always get there, but you will achieve a lot more than you thought you would.”


Speakers at middle school program orientation overcame barriers to study science and engineering

Mentor and mentee and dad attend the 2014 STEM Mentoring Program Orientation on October 18.

Mentor Kevin Smith, a senior studying computer engineering at Boston University, middle school mentee Kevin Matos, a sixth grader from Lawrence, Massachusetts, and his father Pedro Matos attend the 2014 STEM Mentoring Program Orientation on October 18 (photo by Meredith Lawrence).

Public middle school students from Boston, Cambridge and Lawrence, their families, and undergraduate mentors attended orientation for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Mentoring Program at MIT on October 18. As part of the orientation, three keynote speakers from MIT and Harvard shared experiences that led them to study and seek careers in science and engineering.


Danielle Olson (photo by Greg Perko)

Mentors changing minds

Danielle Olson, a recent graduate of MIT in computer science and engineering, gave the first talk. She said that despite her love of science growing up, she couldn’t picture herself as a scientist because of prevailing gender stereotypes. When she was introduced to a mentor through a program offered by her high school, the picture she had of a scientist suddenly changed. “My [original] idea of a scientist was not an outgoing, creative, black female; my idea of a scientist was Bill Nye,” said Olson. “My mentor looked nothing like my idea of a scientist. It was because of this that I changed my major from journalism to science.”

After rejecting preconceived ideas about the kind of career she could have, something different called to Olson. She urged the middle school students in the audience to take a closer look at what their futures could look like if they reject stereotypes and obstacles. Olson left the students with one assignment: “I challenge you to use what you have to do what you can. The master has failed more times than the novice has even tried.”

David Boone

David Boone (photo by Greg Perko)

Staying hungry

The next speaker at the orientation was David Boone, a Harvard junior who founded his university’s Undergraduate Robotics Club and completed an internship at Microsoft. Like Olson, it never occurred to Boone to study science and engineering as a high school student despite having a deep interest in those fields. Instead, he expected to pursue law or medicine. “Growing up smart in Cleveland, you either become a doctor or a lawyer,” said Boone. “No one ever thought to tell me, David you’re smart, why don’t you become an engineer?”

Feeling a lack of challenge at his high school, he applied and was accepted to the Minority Introduction to Science and Engineering (MITES) program at MIT. Boone’s experience during MITES changed his perception of success and opened him up to a new way of thinking about his own future. “For the first time, I was surrounded by students just as excited about engineering as me with very similar backgrounds.”

Now, Boone lives his life in a way that reflects his ideals and allows him to be a role model for his family. “My siblings look up at me for inspiration,” he said. “I can’t get too content, I have to stay hungry.”

Mareena Robinson-Snowden (photo by Greg Perko)

Mareena Robinson-Snowden (photo by Greg Perko)

Ignoring fear

Mareena Robinson-Snowden was the last to speak, sharing the story of her career path, which took several turns and detours prior to her current position as a doctoral candidate in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. She talked about the importance of not letting fear prevent students from reaching their goals. In high school, Robinson-Snowden feared that she wasn’t capable of understanding math concepts like her peers. “My fear was paralyzing,” she said. “It kept me from learning. I had established a belief about myself, and once you establish that belief, your mind looks for evidence to color that belief.”

Robinson-Snowden stressed that students passionate about science and engineering should not become disheartened about the subjects they study, and that they should never give up on challenges because of fear. Today, she has overcome her own fears and serves as co-president of the Academy of Courageous Minority Engineers.

STEM Program Academic Advisor Catherine Park closed the orientation by thanking the speakers, middle school students, families and mentors, and provided some context on why the program is important. “Middle school can be tough sometimes, and the transition to high school can be even tougher,” said Park, “That’s why we match our students with people who went through it all in the not so distant past.”

—Sydney Lester

Lunch with SanDisk CEO celebrates OEOP alumni

Leaders from the SanDisk Corporation joined MIT students and staff on September 19 at the Boston Marriott Cambridge for a lunch that acknowledged undergraduates who have benefitted from SanDisk-supported high school programs and undergraduate scholarships.

“MIT is a special place for SanDisk,” said SanDisk CEO Sanjay Mehrotra, who praised the Institute’s research, international programs and focus on interdisciplinary education. “MIT is among the very best when it comes to the technology and engineering engagement that it provides to students.”

Part of the lunch celebrated SanDisk’s support of MIT’s STEM education outreach at the high school level. Over the past two years, SanDisk has sponsored dozens of students in MIT engineering enrichment programs for rising high school seniors from across the country. Those programs – Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES), Engineering Experience at MIT (E2@MIT) and MIT Online Science, Technology, and Engineering Community (MOSTEC) – primarily serve students from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds.

The lunch also highlighted SanDisk’s support of MIT at the undergraduate and graduate levels. As part of the SanDisk Scholars Program, the company has sponsored scholarships for undergraduate students in each grade level for the past three years. SanDisk also partners with the VI-A M.Eng. Thesis Program – a five-year program in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science that matches students with industry internships and awards them bachelor’s and master’s degrees – as well as the Leaders for Global Operations program – a dual degree program in engineering and management innovation run by the School of Engineering and the Sloan School of Management.

The SanDisk executive team members at the lunch – five of whom are MIT alumni – discussed other ways the company may look to support MIT’s preparation of engineering leaders in the future. SanDisk Senior Vice President Manish Bhatia ’93, SM ’99, MBA ’99 said the company is looking into sponsoring undergraduate research.

“One of the best things about MIT is that there’s no way for you to get an engineering degree here without doing research,” Bhatia said. “It’s a fundamental part of being an engineer in the real world, and it’s one of the things that separate MIT engineers.”

During the lunch, MIT students and leadership from SanDisk had an opportunity to learn about each other’s work. “Hearing about what each one of you is doing is just mind-boggling,” Mehrotra said. “We are so proud to be sponsoring the SanDisk Scholars as well as the MITES, E2@MIT and MOSTEC programs.”

Many SanDisk leaders spoke before the full group, covering topics ranging from advances in flash memory technology, to career opportunities at SanDisk, to the importance of networking.

“You are the future leaders,” said James Goldsberry, Senior Director of Engineering for SanDisk at the company’s new location in Marlborough, Massachusetts. “Carry the network you have here throughout your whole life, because these will be the future leaders of your sister companies. You’re going to lean on them as you proceed in your career.”

An outpouring of thanks concluded the event. “Programs like ours wouldn’t happen without sponsors and supporters like SanDisk,” said Shawna Young, executive director of the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs. “SanDisk is making a tremendous impact on the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

Words by Nick Holden, photos by Pierce Harman

This story was also published on MIT News.

A different sense of pride


Stephan Boyer, MITES ’08, is an MIT graduate student and member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (Photo: Meredith Lawrence).

In 2008, Stephan Boyer was a top student at his California high school. Interested in electrical engineering, Stephan traveled to MIT to enroll in Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) during the summer before his senior year. Through six weeks of new challenges and a college-level engineering curriculum at MITES, Stephan discovered there was much to learn from his peers.

“I had no idea what a top-caliber student, an MIT student, looked like,” said Boyer. MITES exposed him to other students who excelled at school and inspired him to pursue his interests in engineering and computer science. “The people I met were passionate and cared about their fields,” Stephan says. “They were independent thinkers.” 

During MITES, Stephan found himself and his peers working harder than they ever had before. “Everyone in the program is united by one thing,” Stephan says. “They have this fire that can’t be put out.” That fire shifted many of Stephan’s preconceived beliefs. “MITES put me in an environment where everyone was passionate,” he says. “They made me more open minded to things I’d never questioned before. I’d never had the opportunity to see things from a different perspective.”

Confident before MITES, Stephan met people who showed him that there was room to grow. “If your ego leads you to believe you’re already at the top, then you don’t have that drive,” he says. “There’s no motivation to push it further. MITES removed that sense of pride and replaced it with a different sense of pride. I come from a family of people who push me every day to be better than I thought I could be.”

As a graduate student at MIT and member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), Stephan now uses his MITES foundation to move forward in his computer science career. While at MIT, he has taken on a number of challenging projects, which have led him to build a self-balancing unicycle, develop and implement a new computer programming language, and launch an app with 72,000 registered users.

Through his journey, Stephan has found creative motivation in people. “I draw inspiration from my closest friends, mostly at MIT,” he says. After MIT, Stephan hopes to start his own company in order to explore new ideas in a collaborative environment – a dream that started at MITES and continued through his education. “I want to push boundaries and do things that haven’t been done before,” he says. “I want to push the frontier of what’s possible.”

—Sydney Lester 

Beginning a journey to the intersection of engineering and medicine

Roya Edalatpour, MOSTEC ’11, was provisionally accepted into an M.D. program as a sophomore.

Growing up, Roya Edalatpour wanted to be an astronaut. “Completely different from being a doctor,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t really consider medicine, I didn’t think I had the guts to do it,” she explains. She speaks with clarity and collectiveness, in a mature, light tone.

Roya, 19, is now a rising junior at the University of Texas, El Paso, where she studies engineering on a pre-med track. During her sophomore year, she was accepted to the Early Medical School Selection Program (EMSSP) offered through her school and the Boston University School of Medicine, where she’ll be this summer to complete a six-week residential program. Roya was one of four students recently accepted from her school to fill twelve national seats.  As Roya continues her studies, she plans to apply to complete her M.D./Ph.D. in engineering and medicine.

Inspired in Cambridge and Austin

In 2011, Roya took part in the inaugural class of the MIT Online Science, Technology and Engineering Community (MOSTEC) offered by the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs. Through the program, she took part in a number of hands-on science and engineering experiences, including one of the most memorable for her: standing in the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel during the one-week MOSTEC Conference on MIT’s campus. Recalling the tunnel, she positions her small frame into a boxer’s stance. “I had to stand like this the whole time to fight the wind,” she says, laughing.

Through MOSTEC’s coursework and inspiration from MIT professors and counselors, Roya identified her passion for biomedical engineering, robotics and electrical engineering. Her time on campus also helped her recognize that she wanted to come back to the Boston area.

So how did medicine become part of the mix? In 2011, Roya participated in a computer science program at the University of Texas, Austin, where she had the chance to witness the da Vinci Surgical System – a robot used for minimally invasive surgery – in action. “As I was sitting there, working with the team, I was like, oh my gosh this is so accurate. It was amazing for me to see this robot being so precise,” she says.

The summer before her freshman year at UTEP, Roya shadowed a doctor. The clinical experience confirmed her interest in medicine, but she didn’t want to let go of engineering. So, when her pre-med counselor at school told her she could do both by completing her MD/Ph.D., she jumped at the opportunity.

Roya in her lab coat on Boston University's campus. (Photo courtesy Roya Edalatpour)

Roya in her lab coat on Boston University’s campus.

The impact of a mentor

“Enthusiastic, creative, passionate and bright” are some words Roya’s mentor Martine Ceberio uses to describe her. Ceberio, an associate professor of computer science at UTEP, has given Roya career advice and introduced her to the National Center for Women in Technology Aspirations in Computer Science program, which “made a big difference in the opportunities that were sent her way,” Ceberio says. “Granted, without NCWIT AiC, she would have been successful anyway,” she adds.

Roya first met Ceberio during the summer of 2010, when she and another student were sent by her high school, Harmony Science Academy, to participate in a summer research internship in Ceberio’s lab. “Her energy and ability to make the most out of everything,” Ceberio says, is what stood out about Roya. One opportunity led to the next, and Roya agreed to continue conducting research with Ceberio during the academic year.

Now, Roya facilitates mentorship opportunities for others through a role on the marketing team for Magikstra, an all-student startup. It’s a new kind of social network aimed at connecting high school students with professionals in fields the students are interested in. The platform gives students a new chance to take action on an opportunity, as Roya did with Ceberio.

Motivated by family

Originally from Iran, Roya and her family moved to the United States when she was five years old. In El Paso, she lives with her parents and 11-year old sister, Shakila. It’s a 20-minute commute to campus, but she doesn’t mind living at home – especially having the luxury of home cooked meals. “I still do my own laundry,” she says.

Roya explains that knowing the sacrifices her parents made for her future is a great part of what keeps her going. In Iran, her mother had a research job at a university, and her father was the head of a company. “They had a lot of really great opportunities over there,” Roya says. But Roya’s family passed on their own opportunities to ensure even better ones for Roya.

“They told me it’s because they wanted me to have a better future, for me to grow up in the education system here,” Roya recalls. “Knowing that really pushes me to do better in school, to strive to learn and achieve my hopes and dreams, because I know that makes them happy, to see me succeed.”

—Alexandra Koktsidis

MITES alum launches 3-D printer company, sparks passion in future engineers

AJ photo

AJ Perez is CEO of NVbots, creators of an efficient, affordable 3-D printer.

It was the summer of 2012, and MIT engineering students and fraternity brothers Alfonso “AJ” Perez, Mateo Peña Doll, Chris Haid and Forrest Pieper ran into a problem. They were working on a project and needed to prototype parts, but they couldn’t easily access a 3-D printer on campus to create the prototypes. They did, however, have free time and an endless supply of creativity, so they took on a seemingly impossible project – building their own 3-D printer in the basement of their fraternity.

Today, the four are the ambitious co-founders of New Valence Robotics (NVbots), a company selling a more efficient, affordable and completely wireless 3-D printer to educational institutions and others. In early October, AJ, the CEO of NVbots, was also included among the winners of the Boston Globe’s “Hive 25 under 25,” an inaugural list of young local innovators. He is also the recent – and final – recipient of the Jerome Lemelson Fellowship, a scholarship for graduate students “whose research involves invention, innovation and intellectual property.”

The south Florida native first came to MIT as a rising high school senior participating in MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program. MITES is a six-week residential summer program run by the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP) that provides academic enrichment for promising students, predominantly from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds. Even for AJ, a high-achieving student, the college-level coursework he encountered at MITES was an unexpected challenge. “I was a super arrogant kid coming in,” AJ admits. “I got beat down a little bit.”

While during MITES, AJ enjoyed the challenge of learning new material beyond the scope of his high school coursework, when the program came to a close, AJ was still unsure about his next steps. “I really wasn’t interested in all that much in high school,” AJ says. “I was just good at some stuff – I was good at school, for the most part.”

After MITES and his senior year of high school, AJ returned to MIT as an undergraduate. He initially majored in business but changed his major four times to political science, physics, material science, and finally, to mechanical engineering.

“I was totally lost,” AJ says. “I had no idea what was going on – I was 18 years old. Total existential crisis.” While wavering in his decision to drop material science courses he didn’t find interesting, a resident advisor in AJ’s fraternity encouraged him to do what felt right. “I thought, ‘I’m going to go try that for a while,’” AJ says, “and [I] got really excited about it.”

AJ, who recalls being a “Legos kid” as a child, found the hands-on aspect of mechanical engineering enthralling. The class that hooked him on mechanical engineering was 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I). In 2.007, students are given design challenges to address with specific timelines and limited resources. “I really enjoyed that – you had to operate within a budget, you had to operate on time, and you had to deliver something that would, within the context of this little contrived game, operate to specification,” AJ says. He realized that he loved being creative under pressure.

During his junior year, AJ continued to develop his skills in production under constraints and deepen his leadership abilities through the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership (GEL) Program. The GEL Program is a co-curricular program that students can apply to take during their junior or senior year at MIT. Students attend engineering design and leadership courses, engage in leadership labs, and develop leadership skills by working on projects in a team-based setting.

AJ cites the GEL program as one of his most meaningful experiences at MIT. Through the GEL program, he fine-tuned his ability to work with engineers of diverse backgrounds, a skill AJ found more difficult to sharpen in departmental classes largely filled with students trained in similar engineering fields. “You learn to communicate very well with other mechanical engineers, computer scientists, and material scientists, but knowing how to communicate effectively with an interdisciplinary engineering team [is] probably one of the best skills I got [from the program],” he says. Effective communication with individuals from diverse backgrounds is a skill that AJ continues to value highly in his current work at NVbots, where he deals regularly not only with other engineers, but also with lawyers, accountants, politicians, and potential customers.

After graduating from MIT, AJ planned to stay in the Boston area to continue developing NVbots with co-founders Chris and Forrest, who were both a year younger than AJ. He applied to the Master of Engineering in Manufacturing (MEngM) program at MIT, but he was uncertain whether he would enroll due to tuition fees. When he found out that he had been selected for the prestigious Jerome Lemelson Fellowship, his main hesitation disappeared.

This fall, NVbots is currently piloting three printers in local high schools. They will be working closely with the pilot schools to get feedback on these initial prototypes and make further improvements as needed. In AJ’s coursework, which is highly complementary to his work for the company, he is working on ways to make the 3-D printer a more precise, efficient system.

The team is also teaching a class on 3-D design and 3-D printing to fifth and sixth graders at the Lee School in Dorchester as part of the Citizen Schools program, an AmeriCorps-affiliated initiative in which volunteers teach afterschool classes to students from public schools situated in low-income areas. The 3-D design/printing class was inspired by his experience taking 2.007 and serving as a teaching assistant for an engineering design course in MITES.

AJ is passionate about bringing the kind of hands-on, team-based learning that engaged and inspired him as an undergraduate to elementary school children. As a student less interested in abstract theories than designing and constructing under real-world constraints, AJ understands the frustration that children can feel when given problem sets rather than a material problem to physically solve.

“Kids hate learning math,” AJ says. During AJ’s first lecture, a student asked him whether the course would involve math. AJ’s response of “no” was met with loud cheers. Instead of teaching equations, AJ and his team have their students compete in design challenges using objects found in their everyday lives. Through these challenges, AJ says: “We can explain the science to them – the concept of the gear ratios that are happening in [a self-rotating] cube – that they wouldn’t be excited about if they were taught ‘the geometric theory of cube ratios.’”

Ultimately, it is that excitement that AJ knows firsthand and that he wants to spark in fellow “Lego kids” at an early age. “We stifle inventors at a young age, by shoving them into a framework of very confined mathematical learning,” says AJ. “The most successful engineers and inventors in world history all stopped creating new ideas by the time they were 27 or 30. … So if we’re constraining the first 18 years of somebody’s life … it seems kind of absurd. We should get them at a young age.”

“That’s the hope. To get them passionate,” AJ says.

–Lena Bae

Coming home: Alum of MIT middle and high school programs returns to begin doctorate program in aerospace engineering

When Zi Peng “Hunter” Zhao was five years old, he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: an aerospace engineer. “You see a rocket launch, and that to me was the coolest thing ever. You’re sending people to space, and it’s… discovery – exploration – it’s just really awesome to me,” he says. While the precise details of his dream have evolved over the years, his connection to MIT – beginning as a middle school student and extending through today as a first-year Ph.D. candidate in aerospace engineering – has remained constant.

Hunter Zhao is a first-year doctoral student in the aerospace engineering program at MIT.

Hunter Zhao is a first-year doctoral student in the aerospace engineering program at MIT.

Growing with SEED and STEM

While the doctorate program and research in MIT’s Systems Engineering Advancement Research Initiative (SEAri) marks a new chapter for Hunter, returning to MIT is, in a way, a homecoming. Hunter arrived at the Institute around a decade ago as a rising seventh-grader who had only a few years before immigrated to Boston from Singapore after spending his early years in China.

In 2004, Hunter, then a seventh grader at Edwards Middle School in Boston, enrolled in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Program in its inaugural year. In the program – provided by the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP) to students who attend public middle school in Boston, Cambridge and Lawrence, Massachusetts – Hunter and his peers spent five weeks during the summer learning math and science from MIT students and select Saturdays during the school year working one-on-one with student mentors. Hunter also participated in the Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery (SEED) Academy, an OEOP program that provides hands-on curriculum to strengthen local high school students’ foundational skills in math and science over seven semesters.

The then-coordinator of SEED Academy, Nicole Stark Lane, remembers Hunter as a “soft-spoken young man with impressive abilities and a family that strongly valued academic achievement.” Stark wrote in an email: “Throughout his career in SEED Academy, Hunter’s notable dedication to his work endeared him to our staff and earned him the high regard of his peers.”

For Hunter, these programs solidified his passion for engineering and provided an opportunity to engage in his interests through hands-on activities, such as building a remote-controlled car for a SEED Academy project.

He credits the two OEOP programs with providing him an extra push to pursue his dreams. “The stuff I learned… prepared me for a lot of the classes I was going to take. The lectures were always quite enjoyable and [there were] always fun activities,” says Hunter. “These things helped me further along in achieving my goals.”

In 2010, Hunter returned to OEOP to serve as a teaching assistant for Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES).

Making Connections at Caltech  

After high school, Hunter went on to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he studied mechanical engineering with a minor in aerospace engineering. Like many students, Hunter had a broad sense of what he wanted to pursue, but he was unsure of how his interests would specifically coalesce under the umbrella of aerospace engineering.

In his academics, Hunter’s course load reflected his diverse set of interests. “I came into college knowing a lot about computer programming. I also liked the design aspects of mechanical engineering. I took quite a number of materials classes. I also took controls, mechatronics,” he says. “It [was] – I wouldn’t say ‘all over the place,’ because it infers a negative connotation, but it’s rather, I think, very versatile.”

Outside of class, Hunter pursued his passion for aerospace through a variety of projects. Under Professor Sergio Pellegrino of Caltech’s Engineering and Applied Science Division, Hunter conducted research on CubeSats – miniature satellites used for space research – and reaction wheels – mechanisms that handle spacecraft altitude control. He also worked part-time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a NASA research and development facility managed by Caltech.

At the JPL, Hunter worked in the Systems Engineering Department, and it was there that he recognized the match between systems engineering and the skills he developed through his experiences in and out of the classroom.

Systems engineering is a field that explores ways to design and manage complex engineering projects that involve a variety of fields. As Hunter explains, “[There are] all these different aspects of engineering. They’re very specific; all of them are very independent in a way. But your systems engineer makes sure all of these come together.” Hunter recognized that the versatility he pursued in his coursework could be an asset for a systems engineer and that a systems approach was the one he wanted to take within aerospace.

From Engineering to Policy 

Beyond systems engineering, Hunter encountered other kinds of connections – particularly those between science and policy. “I used to be this purely technical guy,” Hunter says. “I wanted to do really cool things. I wanted to be like [founder of SpaceX] Elon Musk.” However, work in an environment where engineers often expressed worries about dependence on funding altered his perspective. “More and more, I began to realize that if you stay purely in the technical field, while you can achieve a lot of things, the impact you make is still limited,” Hunter says.

Hunter believes deepening that impact is a critical concern for aerospace development today. “Most people out there, they think we invest like 20 percent of our national budget in NASA. But in fact it’s only 0.5 percent. And yet for every dollar we put into NASA, seven to 14 dollars come out to the economy eventually. But it takes time, and time is something our system doesn’t seem to allow,” Hunter says. “So I think that’s something I could go into and address.” He hopes that as a systems engineer, he can eventually shift his focus into the policy and business aspects of the aerospace industry.

Looking Forward and Looking Back

Anticipating life after graduate school, Hunter plans to first build further experience in the aerospace industry, either in government-funded agencies or in the private sector. Eventually, he plans to move into policy.

And when Hunter looks back at his own trajectory, he sees not only a student following his passion for aerospace one step at a time, but also the growth of a young person made possible by many others. Reflecting on his eighth-grade self, eagerly learning engineering in SEED Academy, Hunter says, “I was really arrogant. I thought I was everything.” Now he says, “A lot of the things in my life really didn’t happen by my effort … I’d say my life is the result of the inspiration of many, many other people.”

As Hunter puts it, the path to great achievements lies in “an art of responding.” “You can either look at something as an opportunity or something as work,” he says.

For Stark, Hunter is living proof that effective academic enrichment programs can empower students to succeed in technical fields and in life. “I often say that an investment in young people offers the best ROI possible; it’s infinite,” Stark says. “The fact that Hunter was accepted to and has elected to attend the doctoral program at MIT this year validates everything I believe about children’s ability to meet expectations… We knew our students were capable, told them so, challenged them whenever possible, and watched them achieve. Now grown, Hunter is a remarkable man and scholar.”

–Lena Bae