Every so often, someone comes along who is going to change the world. What remains to be seen is where and when that someone will have the opportunity. With that in mind, Aviation Week and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) collaborated with universities around the world to identify 20 undergraduate or master’s degree students who already are forging ahead on that mission. And when the AIAA panel finished the evaluations, an important finding emerged—more than 70 students clustered at the top of the ranking, their scores differing by just hundredths of a point.

With nominations from engineering programs at 37 different universities, the panel of judges looked for what sets the mark in a student they would want to hire: a fire for digging deeper and working harder to discover something new, and an interest and concern about the world beyond their studies.

It seemed only fair, then, to turn the tables and ask the students for their measure of the aerospace and defense industry. Their responses were enlightening. 

Aviation Week's 20 Twenties logoGiven all the scientific, technological and engineering challenges that face us in this world today—what do you consider to be the grandest challenge of them all?

Overwhelmingly, the 20 Twenties pointed to the need to protect the climate and find alternatives that yield clean, sustainable energy. Other areas winning their attention were deep-space exploration and interplanetary travel as well as artificial intelligence and the understanding/security of cyberspace.

As Geoffrey Andrews notes, “Our history as a species has always been one of exploration and of survival, so our future will be bleak indeed if we remain confined to our home planet.”

John Deaton of the U.S. Air Force Academy says, “I would love to see things like flying cars and regular trips to Mars,” but he notes: “None of that would matter if we end up depleting the Earth’s resources and are forced to abandon many of our post-industrial achievements. . . . [We need] sustainable solutions to enjoy prosperity and technical advancements without fear of resource depletion.”

What grade would you give to the aerospace and defense industry in attracting a future generation?

Most of this year’s 20 Twenties gave industry a B, though there were a few Cs as well. On the positive side, the students gave high marks for the “cool factor” of what the industry does through highly visible, important programs. “My generation is electrified by the rise of commercial space,” says Keenan Albee. 

Students also pointed to effective outreach and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. And they noted that the industry places a high value on continuing education, which is appealing to most of them.

But these are ways in which they say the industry could do better: improve diversity, compete with the booming tech companies in the area of innovation, and sustain outreach to students before and during college.

  • Eighty percent said diverse work experiences and internships are the most important factor.
  • Just over half cited the influence of parents/family members and teachers.
  • Forty percent said mentors (whether personal, academic or from industry) were most important.
  • Also important were hands-on classes, professional/networking societies and community/volunteer work.

A third of the students reflected on their own contribution to how that career works out. As Julia Di explains, “I always viewed art as more of my purview than engineering. Yet I’m studying engineering now. I never expect success, which is an attitude that keeps me humble and hardworking, and pleasantly surprised when I do succeed.” 

Keenan E.S. Albee will graduate from Columbia University this May with a degree in mechanical engineering and minors in computer science and history. He has completed internships at Boeing and Johns Hopkins University, and he held a research associate role at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center. In addition to research in kinematics simulation of a robotic neck brace, Keenan has developed carbon-fiber and aluminum structures. He is co-president of the Columbia Space Initiative, served on the Executive Council of the university’s Maker Space student workshop, and was the aerodynamics system lead for Columbia’s Formula race car in SAE’s competition. On top of these achievements, Albee is a hacker—legitimately. He was the Hack MIT Best Synaptics winner in 2015, won the Craziest Hack prize at the YHack, and was the Yodel Hardware Hack Winner at HackPrinceton.

Geoffrey Andrews earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Lehigh University and is now a graduate student at Purdue University in astronautical engineering. He was a co-op student employee at NASA Glenn Research Center, a research assistant in the Lehigh Aerospace Systems Lab and an undergraduate research fellow at the Lehigh Bio-Nanomechanics Lab, where he worked on a method to fabricate microfluidic devices using direct-light processing lithography on a microscopic scale. 

Andrews is the chief maintenance officer for Purdue Pilots Inc., was founder and first president of Lehigh’s chapter of AIAA and a member of the university’s Philharmonic Orchestra, Wind Ensemble and Marching 97.  

Jakob Bludau will finish his master’s degree in mechanical engineering this year at the Technical University of Munich. He has served as a research assistant at the university’s Internal Combustion Institute and the Aerodynamics and Fluid Mechanics Institute. He also has been an intern at Eurocopter Deutschland, where he worked in destructive and nondestructive testing. Notably, Bludau holds a European patent through Eurocopter for an ultrasonic testing protocol for mechanical components.

In addition to his technical studies, Bludau serves on the university’s student governance body and as the head of its university politics division, which oversees the development and certification of bachelor’s and master’s degree programs for mechanical engineering. He volunteered for civil service for one year in Ecuador, where he taught English, protection of the environment and computer training.

Julia CrowleyFarenga is this year’s 20 Twenties top student. She is working on her master’s degree at Purdue University and earned her bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2016. Julia has worked with two of the companies pushing the envelope in today’s new space race—both SpaceX and Blue Origin. Last summer, before beginning her graduate work at Purdue, CrowleyFarenga joined SpaceX as an employee working on advanced Mars technology concepts.   

John L. Deaton is ranked No. 1 in his class at the U.S. Air Force Academy based on a combination of academic, military and athletic performance. As a first-class cadet, he was chosen for the Wing Outstanding Four Degree, which designates the best all-round cadet. An aeronautical engineering major, his minor is in Chinese. Deaton is a flight commander, responsible for the development and performance of 25 underclassmen, and was Cadet Director of Operations for the academy’s 94th Flying Training Sqdn. He interned at NASA Johnson Space Center on data reduction methods and optimization for a flush air data system for the SpaceX Dragon Crew Capsule. 

In addition to the rigors of the academy, Deaton traveled to the Dominican Republic to work with Rays of Hope International, providing manual labor in support of local projects to aid an impoverished community.

Julia Di is a junior at Columbia University, majoring in electrical engineering. She has been a research assistant at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and a laboratory associate at Columbia’s Carleton Lab. Di founded Columbia’s Space Initiative and was designated a super-user at the university’s Maker Space. She was also chosen for the Res Inc. program at Columbia—only 30 students from across the university are chosen for this student residential entrepreneurship incubator.

Jennifer Domanowski will graduate from Boise State University this May with a degree in materials science and engineering and a certificate in Korean. She was a Pathways intern at NASA Goddard Space Flight and Glenn and Marshall Research Centers. She is president of the Tau Beta Engineering honor society, a peer ambassador for the university’s College of Engineering and a member of AIAA. 

Domanowski managed an engineering lab at Boise State and developed new experiments for lab modules for the university’s undergraduate courses. She is a first-generation college student, and of particular note is her passion for education, sharing with her peers and future STEM students. "As a young student, it is not always easy to understand what a field like this entails," she says. "I wish someone had encouraged me to look into engineering early on. It’s a great reminder of what inspired me in the first place.”

As a freshman engineering student, Domanowski learned about materials science and engineering, and that’s when “everything clicked," she says. "I loved the concept of how everything is made of something, and it excited me to think of changing the world by manipulating the materials that make it up. I didn’t consider engineering until the end of my senior year. I had always loved my chemistry and physics classes, but it was when I took astronomy that I realized I wanted a career centered around space.”

Karl Domjahn is earning his master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. In addition to his coursework at Queensland, Karl worked at the Mobile Rocket Base with German aerospace center DLR on research in sounding rockets, including the design and building of mechanical mountings to secure measurement hardware within a flight module. Domjahn is the national secretary of the Australian Youth Aerospace Association.

Rebecca E. Hill is a junior majoring in aerospace engineering and was a founder of the Women in Aeronautics and Astronautics organization at the University of Michigan. She is a copy editor at the Michigan Daily, the university’s student newspaper, and served as a teacher and tutor with the EKARI Foundation, teaching English in rural Africa to help students prepare for their national college entrance exams. “Teaching English to prepare students for their college entrance exams—in a country with a 54% pass rate—wasn’t easy,” she admits. “But I loved the opportunity to combine my love of English, teaching and engineering.”

Hill began her volunteerism due to a freshman engineering class reading assignment, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a memoir written by William Kamkwamba about growing up in Malawi, in Southern Africa. “I became interested not only in the challenges he faced, but also on the international accessibility and quality of education,” she says.

Brian Free is earning a master’s degree in flight dynamics and control at the University of Maryland, focusing on bio-inspired robotics at the vestibular system level. He graduated at the top of his undergraduate aerospace class at Maryland in 2015 and is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. In addition to his aerospace studies, Free is treasurer of the Terps Roots and Shoots, a student organization that coordinates community, environmental and animal projects.  

Alexander W. Feldstein is working on a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also earned his bachelor’s degree. He has worked at the computational design laboratory as a research assistant and undergraduate researcher. He also was an undergraduate research assistant at the Imperial College of London. Feldstein interned with Boeing’s Research and Technology group and for the Cessna Aircraft Co., now Textron Aviation. He also was selected for MIT’s Mechanical Engineering de Florez Award for individual undergraduate research projects and was recognized with the AeroAstro Teaching Assistantship Award. A coxswain for MIT’s heavyweight crew team, Feldstein is a member of the MIT Student Athletic Advisory Committee, on which he coordinated community service, athletics promotion and athlete well-being for all of MIT’s varsity athletes. 

Kelly Henckel is a junior at the University of Michigan, majoring in computer science engineering with a focus on aerospace engineering. She interned at Northrop Grumman, where she was co-lead researcher on camera systems research and embedded system controls. For her research project at Michigan, she was the lead software and electrical engineer on development of a hovercraft. Beyond her engineering pursuits, Henckel is a member of the RC Players Theater, Michigan Biological Software Team and the Michigan Rifle Team.

Matthew R. Hurst is a senior at the University of Colorado at Boulder, majoring in aerospace engineering. His technical research has included the application of multiple-fidelity modeling in airfoil design and analysis. He served as project manager of a Capstone project to design, build and test a proof-of-concept light-detection and scanning system for extraterrestrial spacecraft landing. Hurst was a member of a three-person team competing in the International Mathematical Contest in Modeling—and that team was chosen as one of six outstanding teams among 4,094 teams. He interned with Lockheed Martin, where he was recognized as an outstanding intern, and he also interned with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Global Systems Division. Hurst traveled to Puerto Penasco, Mexico, to build housing for homeless families and helped to build and wire a home for a local family in Guatemala. “I don’t view service as the privileged helping those in need, but rather as humans coming together to improve all of our lives collectively, each bringing what we have to the table,” Hurst says.

Rubbel Kumar is a master’s degree student in aerodynamics and propulsion at the University of Maryland, where he also earned his undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering. Concurrent with being a graduate student, Kumar is on staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), where he has worked since August 2014. With fluency in Hindi, Punjabi and Spanish, Kumar participated in the Leadership Essentials program at Loyola University and has amassed more than 260 volunteer hours working with organizations ranging from the APL Center for Talented Youth, Maryland Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement and the University of Maryland’s Women in Aeronautics and Astronautics Day. 

​Braven C. Leung is a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology after completing his undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. His graduate research is focused on the FAA’s Continuous Lower Emissions, Energy and Noise Program. Leung worked as a consultant intern for Booz Allen Hamilton and as a flight systems avionics intern for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He also interned as a systems engineer for Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems. He has a National Defense Science Engineering Graduate Fellowship, received the Dale Margerum Memorial Award for outstanding leadership at Illinois and was selected for the NASA SpaceOps Student Award for technical and scientific excellence.

Wanyi Ng graduated from Duke University with a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering and is currently in the master’s degree aerospace program at University of Maryland. She was a Pathways Intern at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. As an undergraduate, Ng was the vice president of finance for the Duke Engineers for International Development and worked with Brazilian undergraduate engineering students to implement a rainwater catchment system. She also worked on the design of a gray-water management and water distribution system in Honduras. She is active in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, American Helicopter Society, Society of Women Engineers and American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Beyond her studies and volunteerism, Ng is a part-time company artist with the DC Contemporary Dance Theater in Washington.

“One of the most important parts of volunteering is respecting and learning from the communities where you are trying to help,” Ng says, pointing to a need to be aware about imposing cultures and beliefs and where best intentions to help may actually do harm. “Things never go as planned, so one thing that volunteers can always do is learn from the experience.”

Kristen Railey is a graduate student in a joint program between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. She earned her B.S. degree in mechanical engineering at MIT in 2013. Railey is a tactical navigation fellow at Draper Labs and was an assistant with Lincoln Lab’s Advanced Undersea Systems and Technology group.  She founded an outreach program for high school girls, “Girls Who Build,” to increase the number of women in engineering. She also published online curricula for Make Your Own Wearables and Girls Who Build Cameras workshops at MIT.  

Christine Reilly is a junior at the University of Colorado majoring in aerospace engineering and minoring in astronomy and participating in the Discovery Learning Apprenticeship Program. She interned with The Aerospace Corp. and was a systems engineer for the Colorado Space Grant Consortium. She was project manager on the gateway to the space balloon satellite project at the university and was named an outstanding winner of the International Mathematical Contest in Modeling, placing among the top five of 2,280 international undergraduate teams in 2015. A National Merit finalist, she was awarded the Virgin Galactic Unite Bytheway Scholarship. 

Rose Weinstein will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland. In addition to her research at the university, she was a summer intern at NAS Patuxent River with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems and was a flight test engineer at Baltimore Washington International Airport. A vice president of the Women in Aeronautics and Astronautics organization at the University of Maryland, Weinstein is an ambassador for the James Clark School of Engineering. She is a student pilot and volunteers as a mentor/tutor with the Volunteer Peer-Assisted Learning Program.

Emily M. Zimovan will complete her master’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at Purdue University in May. She earned her B.S. at Purdue, accumulating a perfect grade point average. Zimovan interned at NASA Johnson Space Center, where she worked in guidance, navigation and control autonomous flight systems and optical navigation. She was an aeronautics scholar at NASA Langley Research Center, working on experimental hypersonic aero-thermodynamics, and also worked as an intern on the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Zimovan received the Purdue Industrial Roundtable Scholarship and the Space Shuttle Memorial Fund Scholarship, among a number of others.