Tomorrow's STEM Leaders
By Cindy Landrum
David Zuehlke's interest in astronomy started when he was 11, when he used his brother's small department store telescope to "find" Jupiter in the night sky.
Kate Byrd was a dancer in middle and high school, and she became interested in how the human body moved and was controlled.
Both attended college in the Upstate - Zuehlke at Bob Jones University and Byrd at Clemson University - and both are on Aviation Week's "Tomorrow's Technology Leaders: The 20 Twenties." The awards, given in collaboration with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, recognize students earning STEM degrees for their academic performance, civic contribution and research or design project. This year's "20 Twenties" had qualified nominees from 49 different universities representing seven countries.
Kate Byrd calls the applied research she does as an associate staff member at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory a "really cool in-between" that bridges industry and academia. As a federally funded research and development center, the Lincoln Laboratory serves as a technical expert for the government, she said.
Byrd graduated from Clemson University with a bioengineering degree in 2015 and earned a master's in engineering services from Harvard. She is now leading a hardware team to build a handheld radar that can detect moving objects through walls that could help rescue teams find victims buried under rubble after earthquakes or building collapses.
"They could use it to fly over disaster sites where it would be difficult to get workers," she said, "and find survivors."
She's also developing suites of ultra-wideband antennas that are small enough to be worn on the body and that can cover a wide range of waveforms to decrease the probability of detection and intercept by adversaries during tactical communications, according to a release from MIT's Lincoln Laboratory.
"A lot of times when you want to shrink a system, the hardest things to shrink are the antennas and batteries just because of the physics of those two systems," she said. "We're developing optimization algorithms that can optimize the antennas."
Byrd also worked on a lower-leg biomechanical measurement system, called the Mobility and Biomechanics Insert for Load Evaluation, that monitors and prevents musculoskeletal injuries in soldiers. That technology won an R&D 100 Award from R&D World magazine.
Byrd serves as the chief operating officer of Girls Who Build and organizes three workshops to teach girls in high school about STEM through hands-on topics such as music and photography.
That first night, what Zuehlke saw in his brother's telescope was merely a bright star. But when he found Jupiter the next night, he was hooked. Today, he is a Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. During his research on optical orbit estimation, he is spending his time using inexpensive telescope equipment to track satellites in orbit. A camera attached to the telescope records images of portions of the night sky that contain satellites they are interested in studying. The goal is eventually to estimate their orbits.
"This is important because of the ever-increasing number of satellites being launched," he said. "Professional tracking stations provide excellent results for orbit estimation but have limited observing time. Simply put, given the increase in launches and objects in orbit, we need more telescopes to keep track of everything in the sky."
When Zuehlke was a student at Bob Jones University, his senior design project also involved astrophotography.
"A very real problem when trying to capture the best picture of a distant galaxy or nebula is keeping the noise in the image as low as possible. Electronic cameras show more noise in their pictures the warmer the camera is," he said. Zuehlke designed and built a cooling system for his Canon DSLR camera without modifying the camera. The end product was a Styrofoam enclosure with several fans, heat sinks and a thermoelectric cooling device.
"I built a miniature electronic refrigerator for my camera," said Zuehlke, who graduated from BJU in 2017 with a bachelor's of science degree in engineering. He plans to either become a college professor or continuing as a researcher at a government laboratory. He has worked at the Air Force Research Laboratory for three summers.
He said space exploration holds the keys to future technology development. "We only have to look at the way the Apollo program changed the world to see what the effects of space exploration will have on our lives," he said. "One can only imagine what technologies we will develop to enable human exploration and travel to Mars and beyond."
Zuehlke is also doing his part to encourage the next generation of STEM students. He runs an astronomy STEM outreach event for middle and high school students.
"Telescopes were how I fell in love with science and engineering, and I hope I can help pass that along to the next generation," he said.