Robert “Casey” Wilson

When I was 3, my mom asked if I wanted to become an astronaut – I said no; I wanted to be the person counting down from 10…

West Virginia University, 2014-2018
Georgia Institute of Technology, 2018-Present

I had the same feeling that every space-oriented undergrad has when they see those big letters -NASA- emboldened on an advertisement for a talk – ‘woah, like NASA, NASA?’. My first dabbling with the West Virginia Space Grant Consortium – an organization that would wholesale change my life – was at a talk given by Justin Smith, a real-life NASA engineer. Justin didn’t mince words – to land a coveted internship with NASA, one should first consider joining the WV Space Public Outreach Team. SPOT, a WVSGC-funded team of STEM ambassadors, became the focal point of my Freshman year. The team would eventually lead me to meeting both Candy Cordwell and Dr. Majid Jaridi of the WVSGC, whose impact on my life would amount to nothing less than a stewardship of continued opportunity and success.

My first direct involvement with the Space Grant would be as a member of the WVU Experimental Rocketry Team – their support of our then-nascent crew, as well as my own independent research, would eventually lead us to an international victory. Soon thereafter, I was selected as a member of the WVSGC-funded WVU Microgravity Research Team. In 2017, I would fly 30 zero-G parabolas, testing electrical solder with applications to long-duration human spaceflight. In a detour from engineering, the Space Grant also provided me funding for several semesters of research under renowned pulsar astronomer Maura McLaughlin. My relationship with the Space Grant would ultimately prove Justin’s original advice prescient, as I was selected for a dream-come-true internship at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Funding unsecured, the Space Grant agreed to finance both my internship and travel to California. Their generosity allowed me to work on an exoplanet-hunting instrument that will fly on the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope in the mid-2020s. To help adjust during my first time living outside of WV, the Space Grant connected me to JPLers Alan Didion and Cathy Lally. Their kindness that summer was unmatched, and through the Space Grant I made life-long friends.

Capping off my days as an undergrad, Dr. Jaridi introduced me to the director of the Georgia Space Grant Consortium, Dr. Ruffin of the Georgia Institute of Technology. I would go on to attend graduate school at Georgia Tech, completing a Master of Science in aerospace engineering in 2019. While at GT, I collaborated with the Georgia Space Grant Consortium and founded both the Georgia Tech Experimental Rocketry Team and the Georgia Outreach Team for Space: spin-offs reminiscent of my time as a Mountaineer. My time with Lori Skillings and Alysia Watson of the GSGC made me feel as though I had never left home. Leading up to graduation, I arranged to continue to conduct research remotely towards a Ph.D. degree with my then-master’s advisor. As had been the case time and time again, in the face of uncertain funding, the GSGC stepped up and agreed to finance my doctoral research. The Space Grant’s support, even now, is allowing me to follow my dreams.

At GT, my love of rockets would lead me to an internship, and eventual full-time position as a Propulsion Analyst at SpaceX in Hawthorne, CA. As a SpaceX engineer, I use skills every day that were gained or otherwise sharpened through experiences had thanks to the Space Grant. If you are a student interested in NASA, space, astronomy, or the like: look no further than the Space Grant Consortium – they will literally make your dreams come true.

Casey Wilson – Propulsion Analyst, SpaceX

Timothy Bear

Test Operations Engineer, SpaceX – McGregor, TX

Hannah Payne

2010-2016 West Virginia Grant Scholar

I would not be where I am today without the support of this program

I did not realize my potential when I entered college at West Virginia State University, and actually had intended to be a fine arts major. I excelled in my first biology class, where by doing so I was offered a position to work in a lab with Dr. Barbara Liedl. Dr. Liedl and I were able to get funding to support my studies by applying for a fellowship through NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium. My first project in 2010 consisted of investigating the contribution of antioxidants and soluble solids from tomatoes, which are critical in providing and maintaining a healthy diet.  We were striving to optimize the potential benefits in new tomato varieties.

Continuing forward, in 2012-2013 I was funded to work in a different lab investigating the design of specialty compounds for the removal of toxic aluminum ions from water sources. This study lead to the discovery and synthesis of a new compound that can potentially be used in the future to reduce contaminants in water sources. I was awarded first place at the 2012 Science Technology and Research Symposium for this work that would not have been possible without the support of NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium.

More importantly, NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium not only funded my research as an undergraduate research student, but as a graduate student as well. From 2014-2016 I worked on creating a synthesis for a natural compound that would be a safer alternative to conventional pesticides. After the compound had been completed, we investigated its properties to make sure that it was not harmful to beneficial insects.

After graduating with my masters in biotechnology in 2016, I was hired immediately as a research technician at West Virginia State University. After a year, I was promoted to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Specialist of the Center for the Advancement of STEM (CASTEM). I was in this position for four months before being promoted to the Director of CASTEM.

When the general public hears NASA, they usually only relate this to their space programs, however, NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium contributes to the overall growth of scientific knowledge across the spectrum. By supporting me as an undergraduate, and graduate student they helped in creating a sustainable passion for STEM. As the Director of CASTEM, I am using all of those lessons that I gained during those experiences to promote the growth of students in our local communities. In a state that is rated highest in the nation for drug overdoses, it is of immediate importance that we have programs that target our youth. Science education has shown to make students more confident in themselves, increase critical thinking, and promote overall success. If we want to create strong economic, academic, scientific, and governmental leaders, it starts with the education of our youth. Funding from NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium is crucial for the advancement and support of these future leaders.

Director of CASTEM and Assistant Program Director for 4H Youth Development
West Virginia State University

Alan M. Didion

2009-2015 West Virginia Space Grant Participant
“High school dreams of working for NASA a real possibility”

During my first week of college at West Virginia University, I heard rumors of an office that could make my high school dreams of working for NASA a real possibility. I made time to visit this place and meet Candy Cordwell and Majid Jaridi, not realizing how monumental an impact they would have on my life in the next few short years. The son of a police officer and a bank marketer, I grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia, a city that once housed an official United States port of entry and a booming steel industry, but whose population and income were rapidly dwindling.

I learned about the space grant program, was told of all the opportunities, and dove in immediately. My marathon involvement with the WVSGC began with academic research at school, which led to a summer internship at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. The WVSGC proceeded to support me as I took student employment at the nearby NASA Independent Verification & Validation facility and represented them, NASA, and WVU at numerous outreach events. I learned the value of teaching the public while continuing to enrich myself. Again, with the stalwart support of the WVSGC, I was accepted to the 2013 NASA Academy program at Ames Research Center, where I got a taste of California, and where the intense regimen cultivated a robust work ethic for my comrades and myself. I met people from various fascinating places while being exposed to incredible things that I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to experience.

In 2014, I proceeded to enroll in graduate school at WVU to earn a Master’s of Science in aerospace engineering. Consumed in my research, I didn’t do any more internships, but I kept my relationship with the WVSGC fresh. As I approached the date of my thesis defense, I set my sights on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for employment. With the help of my professors, I was able to identify an internship opportunity at JPL upon my graduation, but was struggling to find funding. After my thesis defense, with a generous decision that impacted my life permanently, the WCSGC granted me full funding for my internship. This internship led directly to my receiving a job offer at JPL, where I currently work and plan to stay for the duration of my career.

At JPL, I currently serve as a systems engineer in the mission concept systems development group of the project systems engineering section. Every day, I work with fascinating mission concepts that aim to advance mankind’s place in the universe and push the limits of science and technology. I love where I am and what I do, and I have many to thank, but none as thoroughly as the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium.

West Virginia, a state scarred by generations of resource exploitation, is redeemed by its people and their steadfast resolve. This is exemplified by the incredible work done by the state’s NASA Space Grant Consortium, which has granted the dreams of numerous natives just like me, who otherwise may find themselves struggling and gasping for opportunity.

Alan M. Didion
Systems Engineer, NASA JPL

Emily Calandrelli

 2006-2010 West Virginia Space Grant Participant

“Dramatically improved my confidence level”

It is no exaggeration to say that the West Virginia Space Grant program was my most valuable resource for fellowship, scholarship, and internship opportunities while attending West Virginia University. Even to this day, I encourage undergrads to use it as their go-to resource.

More specifically though, during my time as an undergrad, the West Virginia Space Grant helped me find a great research fellowship and every single one of my internships. It was an incredible experience and the staff was extremely helpful in matching my interests with the opportunities that were offered.

One of the most memorable opportunities was the volunteer class offered to students as part of a microgravity research team that worked on the Vomit Comet aircraft. In addition to getting me into this class, the program also found sponsors for me. The culmination of these, and many other experiences (summer in China, MIT graduate school, etc.) helped me determine the specific field of engineering that I eventually pursued.

As a direct consequence of being exposed to so many different opportunities, my professional options have greatly increased. For instance, I have been the TV host of an educational program about outer space, written technology articles for Tech Crunch, and am currently writing a children’s book featuring a STEM-oriented heroine.

I cannot say enough about the encouraging staff—the director and coordinators in particular—whom I consider friends. Their expertise, guidance, and genuine concern allowed me to put things on my “resume” that made me highly competitive on national scale and prepared me for various research opportunities. Throughout this process, working with the West Virginia Space Grant program dramatically improved my confidence level.

It is difficult to even imagine the opportunities that would have missed had I not been in this program. I think that is what makes this such a crucial connection for students at state schools who may not get the same opportunities.

Emily Calandrelli
Producer and Host of FOX’s Xploration Outer Space
Tech Crunch Writer

Kerri Phillips

2005-2009 West Virginia Space Grant Participant
“a family away from home”

I really owe the West Virginia Space Grant program quite a lot. In fact, while completing my undergraduate (2003-2007) and graduate (2008-2011) degrees at West Virginia University, they offered me numerous internship opportunities from which I gained invaluable skills.

For example, during the summers of 2005 and 2006, the program funded my internship at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. I was part of a three-person team that worked on the Global Mariner project. The objective of this project was to develop a technology test bed for the future exploration of Europa. It was quite amazing and involved the development of both software and hardware for an autonomous underwater vehicle.

The internship also connected me to a network of various companies who sponsored me to attend several unmanned aerial vehicle conferences. These two internships represented a key turning point in my ambitions because they helped me realize the direction of my future professional endeavors.

It was during my internships that I also began to explore various electives that enhanced my understanding of flight controls and other areas of specific interest.

As a member of West Virginia University’s microgravity research team, the Space Grant program also sponsored a number of our activities, like flying on NASA Johnson Space Center’s weightless wonder.

In graduate school, I was involved in a direct track PhD program for aerospace engineering that specialized in flight controls (i.e. flight testing of small UAV platforms). The research from these classes directly enabled me to get the job I have today at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics laboratory in the air and missile defense sector.

As a graduate student, the West Virgina Space Grant helped a group of students and I start the Student Partnership for the Advancement of Cosmic Exploration (SPACE) which has expanded to several campuses around the state.

Their selflessness inspired me to give back to others and is largely the reason I have enjoyed teaching so much at Johns Hopkins for the last three years. This program can change your life. It certainly changed mine.

Ultimately, I consider the Space Grant program as a second family. They also connected me with several internships and organizations that, in turn, allowed me the freedom to determine the scope of my education as it could be applied to the real world.

Kerri Phillips
The Johns Hopkins University
Integrated Systems Section Supervisor and Visiting Professor

Justin Smith

2004-2006 West Virginia Space Grant Scholar
“has literally changed my life”

I was born and raised in West Virginia and grew up dreaming of attending West Virginia University and working for NASA. So, after enrolling at WVU, I entered their aerospace and mechanical engineering program.

For the first couple of years, I worked summer jobs until I was introduced to the West Virginia Space Grant program through one of the informational sessions they hosted on campus. After I was in, the directors and coordinators were incredibly hands-on and guided my process every step of the way.

Working with the program opened up a number of internship opportunities and that allowed me to work at NASA JPL, NASA Glenn and which led to my very first job at United Space Alliance at NASA JSC.

My internship at JPL in 2004 involved systems engineering and allowed me to work in a team environment. Specifically, I assisted an expert group (Team X) of senior advisers tasked with vetting various ideas for aerospace development and robotic space missions. The powerful lessons of knowledge I learned there greatly benefited my future endeavors.

The internship at the NASA Glenn Research Center represented a different sort of benefit. We worked on high-powered density motor technology that utilized experimental fuel sources. Additionally, the team was also examining various ways to adapt developed technology for unmanned exploration vehicles. I found this extremely rewarding because these missions were real world, not theoretical, and the connections I formed there led to my first job.

Both internships allowed me to drill down into the specific areas of engineering that I wanted to pursue. Moreover, the networking skills I acquired enabled me to connect with individuals and groups and has directly led to several wonderful opportunities.

Throughout this entire experience, the director and his coordinator have literally changed my life. I would have never seen my dream fulfilled and am forever grateful to them both.

After graduate school, I went to NASA Johnson Space Center in the Shuttle Training Center and joined a team of four others who had been assigned to the mission crew to fly the space shuttle. At times, I also joined the support crew in training fly simulators and on occasion even filled in for the astronauts.

I finally returned to NASA in West Virginia where I am the deputy project manager for the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle. I am so grateful for how the West Virginia Space Grant program helped all of this come full circle.

Justin Smith
Deputy Project Manager – Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV)
NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation Program (IV&V)
2017 Recipient of NASA’s prestigious “Space Flight Awareness” award.