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Mavericks in Space

Mavericks in Space

Equipped with a strong foundation in science and math and advanced skills in specialized fields, UTA students are ready to launch into impressive careers in the space industry.
by Linsey Retcofsky

Illustration by Chiara Vercesi

Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei is often credited as the first human to point a telescope toward the cosmos. He used the instrument to discover rocky craters on the moon, prompting philosophical questions about life beyond Earth. Since then, scientists have discovered thousands of exoplanets beyond our solar system and estimate that there are billions more in our galaxy alone.

Astronomers searched the skies from ground level, capturing images of the dust and light beyond our atmosphere. Technological advancements of the 20th century propelled our investigations to the furthest corners of the universe. As we launched mechanical and manned missions into orbit, nations competed for prime real estate on the final frontier. Within decades, space exploration became a global industry.

Despite all that advancement of knowledge, questions about our existence remain. Is humankind alone in the universe? How did our existence begin? What exactly is the universe made of?

Employed by companies at the leading-edge of astronautics, UTA students and alumni work to answer these questions and far more, seeking knowledge and resources that will benefit humanity. From collecting soil samples on Mars to analyzing the chemical composition of Venusian clouds, Maverick innovators are helping to decode the mysteries of the universe.

coronal mass ejection

When strong enough, coronal mass ejections like the one pictured here can impact satellites, radio signals, and electrical grids.


In December 2021, NASA launched its most powerful telescope to date, the gold, mirror-plated James Webb Space Telescope. Its mission is to catch glimpses of light from ancient, cloudy galaxies and uncover hidden truths about our universe. Like air traffic controllers before a plane’s ascent, two days before the Webb Telescope launch, NASA’s crew was watching the weather—in outer space.

Approximately one to four times per day, massive tangles of plasma and magnetic field explode from the sun’s surface in a process called a coronal mass ejection (CME). The twisted, fiery ropes slingshot billions of tons of solar material at speeds up to 1,800 miles per second, reaching the Earth in as little as one day. When they are powerful enough, CMEs collide into Earth’s atmosphere, creating intense geomagnetic storms that threaten to disturb human technological systems. Strong electrical currents can interfere with satellite communications, radio signals, and electrical grids.

To mitigate such disturbances, students in UTA’s Department of Physics work alongside their professors on research collaborations with NASA, the Air Force, and institutions across the nation. Through these partnerships, young researchers become problem-solvers for the most urgent issues in atmospheric science.

Under the leadership of Yue Deng, professor of physics, students contribute to NASA’s Geospace Dynamics Constellation mission, a satellite investigation of how the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space redistributes external energy on a global scale. The team supports the successful launch, operation, and return of the mission’s spacecraft by providing state-of-the-art physical models and ground-based observations. Information provided by the mission will improve scientists’ ability to specify and forecast space weather effects around the world.

“The level of expertise presented by our faculty is exceptional, as evidenced by their leadership of multiple national and international investigations,” says Alex Weiss, chair and professor of physics. “The mentorship that students receive in our undergraduate and graduate programs is unparalleled, enabling them to launch into impressive careers in the space industry.”

Hands-on experience gained in campus labs equips students to step into leading roles for their own investigations.

In 2021, Tre’Shunda James, physics doctoral student, received a NASA Graduate Research Fellowship—the second Maverick to receive the honor in three years. For her appointment, James is charting the differences in ionospheric currents during the summer and winter.

James is one of a network of Maverick scientists who have received prestigious appointments with the National Science Foundation, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, NASA campuses across the United States, and top research universities.

James Webb Space Telescope

An artist’s conception of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.


For the Webb telescope to launch, engineers designed a series of intricate folds to collapse the 70-foot-wide device onto the tip of a slender rocket. Once in orbit, the 14,300-pound origami project expanded in a carefully sequenced ballet of silicon-coated limbs. Its successful deployment was unlike any feat of engineering in global history.

Aerospace engineers are no strangers to high stakes prototypes. That’s a consequence of working in an industry on the leading edge of exploration. Often, they begin development with only an idea and a blank piece of paper. Over the years, many budding aerospace engineers at UTA have gotten hands-on practice for their future carers from what may seem like an unlikely place: building cars.

Every year, students in UTA’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineering (FSAE) group construct a formula racing car from scratch. Under the supervision of Robert Woods, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE), students manage the automobile design from initial drawings through race day. In the weeks before competition, the automotive shop converts into an unofficial dormitory, and Maverick engineers work through the night to perfect the vehicle.

The hard work pays off. UTA’s FSAE racing team is one of the most successful student race car programs in the nation, having won eight championships in the United States and three abroad. Each year, by the time they return from competition, the team’s members have received several job offers.

Erian Armanios, chair and professor of MAE, says his students’ experiences on the ground prepare them for work in the sky.

“The reason that FSAE students are desirable to aerospace companies is because they fundamentally understand each phase of the design process,” Dr. Armanios says. “Their knowledge is grounded in practical experience, and they are ready for real-world challenges.”

To maintain students’ 100% job-placement rate, Armanios says his faculty continually evaluate their research to address timely, essential issues on the leading edge of engineering.

At the end of her studies in the Advanced Materials and Structures Lab, Katya Bostaph, an MAE alumna, says her skills were so specific she worried she wouldn’t find a job. On the contrary, her talents in X-ray computed tomography, or CT scanning, made her a valuable hire for the position of nondestructive evaluation engineer at SpaceX.

“I absolutely would not have the job I have today if it weren’t for the education and resources I received at UTA,” Dr. Bostaph says. uta


From investigating Venus to studying space weather to monitoring cosmic communication, Mavericks are playing active roles in exploring our universe.

Lori Glaze
Lori Glaze

Director, NASA’s Division of Planetary Science
’89 MS, ’85 BA, Physics

As director of NASA’s Division of Planetary Science, Lori Glaze oversees the agency’s flight missions and scientific research that address fundamental questions of solar system formation and evolution, including understanding planetary environments that can support life. But there is one planet that truly captivates her: Venus.

      At the formation of our solar system, Venus was akin to Earth. But as Earth evolved into a home for living inhabitants, Venus matured into a toxic wilderness.

      “Venus has a thick, noxious atmosphere filled with sulfur dioxide, and the air pressure at ground level is similar to the pressure almost a mile below Earth’s ocean,” Dr. Glaze says. “It’s an enigmatic place. How did the two planets evolve so differently?”

      To answer that question, Glaze led a team of scientists and researchers at Goddard Space Flight Center through nearly a decade of mission concept development. The team proposed the deployment of a small probe containing an analytical chemistry laboratory that would dive from the planet’s yellow clouds to its volcanic surface, making precise measurements of noble gases and other elements to understand why Venus’ atmosphere differs from Earth’s. The project, the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) mission, is set to launch by 2030.

Pauline Dredger
Pauline Dredger

Newkirk Fellow, NASA Graduate Research Fellow
PhD candidate, Physics

Most people think of outer space as a dark void. For Pauline Dredger, space is a busy corridor where high-speed particles and electrical currents travel between the sun and Earth.

      “To the untrained eye, the solar system can seem like a dull place,” she says. “People think of space as empty, but it’s full of active elements whose interactions are really fun to observe.”

      Dredger is part of the growing international scientific community whose mission is to improve the forecasting and mitigation of the effects of space weather events on Earth’s magnetic field and technological systems. When she’s not conducting doctoral research in the lab at UTA, you’ll likely fifind her at work in one of two national research centers.

      As a Newkirk Fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Dredger is conducting research at the agency’s High-Altitude Observatory, investigating the closure of electric currents created when supersonic solar wind impacts Earth’s magnetic fifield. The appointment runs concurrently with her work as a NASA Graduate Research Fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

      Her busy schedule matches her curiosity. Although dedicated to space physics research, she also has a strong interest in particle physics. If she could answer one question about our universe it would be, “What is dark matter?”

Ian Lim
Ian Lim

Computer Scientist, NASA Glenn Research Center
’21 PhD, Mathematics

Contrary to popular belief, Ian Lim does not have an archive of secret extraterrestrial photos stored on his work computer at the NASA Glenn Research Center.

      As a computer scientist at what he calls the “friendliest place to work,” Dr. Lim spends his days managing data science projects for the center’s chief information officer. His current focus is to collect and provide data on the agency’s space communications. Whether or not he has tapped into any alien conversations, he couldn’t say, but the job always satisfies his mathematical fervor.

      Lim began his college career as an engineering major, but when it was time to say goodbye to his mathematics classes, he just couldn’t do it. After filling out a few add/drop forms, Lim spent the next nine years studying the subject he loved most. In his fourth year of UTA’s mathematics doctoral program, he stumbled across a NASA internship description that described his skills exactly. Within a year, he had converted that internship into a full-time position.

      For those considering life after a mathematics degree, Lim’s advice is simple.

      “Follow your interests, and look for extracurricular opportunities to expand your skill set while you’re in school,” Lim says.

Wendy A. Okolo
Wendy A. Okolo

for NASA’s System-Wide Safety Project; Aerospace Engineering Researcher in the Intelligent Systems Division, NASA Ames Research Center
’15 PhD, 10 BS, Aerospace Engineering

When Wendy A. Okolo told her elementary school class she wanted to be an engineer, she was met with laughter, even from her teacher. Dr. Okolo, now an aerospace engineering researcher in the Intelligent Systems Division at NASA Ames Research Center, says her mom encouraged her to keep dreaming.

      “I have always been fascinated by the mechanics of flight,” she says. “The mathematics behind space travel is mind-blowing.”

      Drawing inspiration from the Wright brothers, the duo who pioneered pilot-controlled aircraft, Okolo has applied her mathematics talents and curiosity to a number of aerospace projects at NASA. One of her favorite projects is an umbrella-shaped deployable entry vehicle. Her team spent months developing control methods so the cargo spacecraft could be used by astronauts to courier materials between space outposts and terrestrial bases.

      Today, as associate project manager for the agency’s System-Wide Safety Project, she is focused on developing technologies that will enable safe access to the national airspace for autonomous vehicles.

Steve Hunker
Steve Hunker

Mechanical Engineering Manager, Maxar Technologies
’08 BS, Mechanical Engineering

If you ask Steve Hunker how he got the job to design the robotic arm for NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover, he’ll modestly tell you, “life just worked out that way.”

      Hunker’s engineering career began in the oil and gas industry, where he designed equipment to perform complicated tasks on the sea floor. He had no idea his talents for developing hardware for harsh environments would be invaluable until his next employer, Maxar Technologies, received a NASA contract.

      Appointed to a team of five engineers and technicians, Hunker spent four years in phases of design, testing, assembly, and integration of the rover’s robotic arm. Its dexterity would serve the greater mission to seek signs of ancient life and collect soil and rock samples for return to Earth.

      Since landing on Mars in February 2021, Hunker’s hardware has helped scientists discover details of crater origins and determine the location of ancient water features.

      “You can’t beat the feeling of knowing that you’ve built hardware that is on another planet,” Hunker says. “To be intimately involved in the design of a mechanism that is now performing complex tasks 100 million miles away is very fulfilling.”

Katya Bostaph
Katya Bostaph

Senior NDE Engineer and Level III in Computed Tomography, Space X
’17 PhD, Aerospace Engineering

As a native of Samara, Russia, Katya Bostaph grew up in the birthplace of the Soyuz rocket family—the longest-running human-spacecraft program in history—surrounded by aerospace engineers. On Cosmonautics Day, an annual Russian celebration, Dr. Bostaph would watch national broadcasts about humankind’s adventures to the final frontier. Stories of Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who broke ground as the first human to travel to space, instilled in her a sense of wonder at humanity’s potential beyond the atmosphere.

      Today, Bostaph is helping to keep that wonder alive. As a senior nondestructive evaluation engineer and level III in computed tomography at SpaceX, she tests hardware for defects, corrosion, and structural integrity, ensuring the safety of the company’s spacecraft.

      On May 30, 2020, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule safely launched from the Kennedy Space Center, carrying Americans from U.S. soil to the International Space Station for the first time in nearly a decade.

      “That rocket launch was the most satisfying experience of my career,” Bostaph says. “It fills me with pride and excitement to know that I helped send our country’s astronauts back into space.”

Illustrations by Nigel Buchanan

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