Space Nerds and Cyborgs Study MSE!

By Alec Arbia, Written Communications Assistant

Ever imagined what a day working at NASA would be like? Seth Utter is a senior MSE major who had the opportunity to do just that.

Seth was able to participate in the NASA Pathways program, which is a work-study (co-op) that prepares participants for a career at NASA. Pathway interns gain valuable work experience and are offered a direct pipeline to full-time employment at NASA upon graduation. This was an amazing opportunity for Seth, who has a “fascination for making new materials in the aerospace industry” and originally wanted to be an aerospace engineer. Over three consecutive summers, he was able to work at three different branches of the Johnson Space Center to get an all-encompassing experience of what working at NASA is like.

When asked what he learned from this experience, Seth stated that the better question would be, “What didn’t I learn?” At the materials and processing branch Seth got to work on and design a test for thermal isolators on VIPER, a lunar rover that is currently planned to be sent to the moon in November of 2024. He was also able to study padding for the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU), which is the spacesuit that will be worn by the first woman (and the next man) to walk on the moon. At the thermal design branch Seth got to research materials being used for heat shields and conducted a heat shield sizing simulation, for which he had to learn Linuxis. This was Seth’s favorite part of the co-op due to the “great project, great mentor, great colleagues, and it was right up my alley in terms of what I was interested [in]. I got to learn a variety of techniques and even got to do an Arc Jet test where a mock heat shield I made got completely destroyed!” Finally, at the thermal systems branch, Seth used Thermal Desktop software to work on establishing temperature requirements for equipment that may someday be installed at the lunar south pole.

To any students looking to take part in the NASA Pathways program, Seth said “They want space nerds! Show them that you’re a space nerd!” He encourages applicants to “mention any projects you have done on your own time that relate to space and your interest in it.” Seth explained that one of his own biggest selling points was when he described an honors assignment on heat shield applications of Ceramic Matrix Composites (CMCs), which are a type of material that consist of ceramic fibers embedded in a ceramic matrix. It was completely online research with no actual testing, but they loved it. “Most importantly, what you do doesn’t have to be from a professor’s lab or a club activity either! You want to simulate a Mars landing? Do it! You want to build a rocket engine? Go for it! Because even if you fail at doing it or don’t have the money and have to just do a research paper on it (like me), it shows interest! That honestly goes for any industry, not just this!”

Seth originally wanted to become an aerospace engineer but settled on mechanical engineering with an aerospace concentration when he realized UConn doesn’t offer an aerospace program. Seth says that the moment that changed his mind and interested him in the MSE major occurred during his 1000 ENGR: Orientation to Engineering course, when Professor Bryan Huey gave a lecture on Materials Science Engineering and explained how applicable it was to aerospace. What convinced Seth to stay in the major, though, was “the close-knit community of students, passionate professors, and variety of research opportunities available.” Another one of Seth’s favorite parts of the major is how small the class sizes are, as it allows one to get to know their fellow students very well. “It makes communication between peers a lot easier when you don’t have to continuously reintroduce yourself to new people every semester.”

The field that interests Seth the most is thermal engineering. “One of the most interesting topics for aerospace is the developments happening for thermal protection shields. Materials are constantly being developed in different ways to stand up to some of the hottest environments that space throws at us. How do we make it so the material can withstand multiple runs? How do we make it so that it’s easier to create and still perform well?”  

Seth’s favorite class that he’s taken thus far would have to be MSE 4040: Materials Selection in Mechanical Design, taught by Professor Greg Ojard. “Arguably one of the most important classes you can take if you plan on doing anything that involves making anything. This class helps you learn how to pick out the right material for the job and understand why certain materials and shapes are used in your day-to-day life.” Seth says that this class was incredibly helpful for his Senior Design Project with Pratt & Whitney, Hybrid Metal Composite Case Design, advised by Professor Sophie Wang. A major part of the project was going through the materials selection process that he had learned in MSE 4040.

Seth enjoys traveling to nearby cities, being a TA under Professor Lesley Frame for MSE 2101: Materials Science and Engineering I, and working in UConn’s new Science 1 building. “The fact that I can now have a meeting with my Senior Design Team in the same room as the equipment we’re going to be using to test our samples is such a huge convenience. Need to check our tensile grip measurements? Just do it right there! Not sure of a test result? Just redo the test right there! Not to mention having everything on the same level reduces time going between using one machine to the next. I can say for certain I won’t miss having to go up and down flights of stairs between our old labs for testing.”

Seth is a recipient of the Lockheed Martin Scholarship, which is a “financial aid program that provides support to freshmen and sophomore students who demonstrated academic excellence, leadership, avid participation in school/community activities, and clear aerospace-oriented career goals.” He has also received the NASA Connecticut Undergraduate Scholarship and is a Babbidge Scholar Recipient. Seth will be graduating in May 2023 and hopes to find a job in a lab environment, testing the latest and greatest in aerospace materials. Eventually he would be interested in a project lead role.

When asked for a fun fact about himself, Seth explained that he has a titanium dental implant in his front tooth. “I am part cyborg!”

Department Head Huey noted, “It’s no surprise that the impact of materials engineering on everything from aerospace, to cyborgs, is motivational for our students. Seth’s experiences at UConn, with the new labs, inspirational classes and projects, and meaningful internships, are perfectly aligned with our department’s goals for all of our students.”

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