Meet AE's Rupal Nigam

4/19/2021 Debra Levey Larson

Written by Debra Levey Larson

Rupal Nigam
Rupal Nigam

Rupal Nigam was born and raised in the Bay Area of California, but has lived in Aurora, Colorado for the past six years. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree in computer science with a minor in math from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and is currently working on her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.




Rupal Nigam while at Raytheon on an internship
Rupal Nigam while at Raytheon on an internship

Did you have any internships while you were an undergrad?

I interned with Raytheon Technologies three times during my undergrad. The first time I was on the GPS OCX software engineering team, and afterwards I was with the artificial intelligence R&D group. During these internships I learned a lot about the aerospace and defense industry. I also got to experience what R&D industry projects are like and have a patent pending from one of the projects I worked on!

At the 2019 AIAA International Astronautical Congress meeting, left to right:  former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, Rupal Nigam, Astronaut Jeanette Epps
At the 2019 AIAA International Astronautical Congress meeting, left to right: former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, Rupal Nigam, Astronaut Jeanette Epps

What’s one of the coolest things you’ve ever done?

During my senior year, I was selected as an AIAA Diversity Scholar. The program provides opportunities to underrepresented students interested in the aerospace industry to attend an AIAA conference or forum. I attended the International Astronautical Congress 2019, where I heard about the latest developments in space from engineers and scientists, learned about international space programs around the world, and had many great opportunities for networking.

The scholarship program paid for all expenses and hosted special sessions for the scholars. Because I wasn’t looking for a job at the conference, I was really able to take my time to learn and network with companies and researchers from around the world. I also got to hear from the Vice President, NASA administrator, and many astronauts! The sense of community among the scholars is also very strong and we still keep in touch.

Describe a challenge you have faced in college or life in general.

Unfortunately, I have chronic migraines, which sometimes are so bad I’ll be in bed for days or even have to go to the hospital. Apart from the obvious, the most frustrating aspect is that migraines are ‘invisible,’ so people almost always don’t know what I’m going through. The migraines definitely can impact my college work and research, but I don’t really view it as a detriment. It just means I have to be more prepared and on top of my stuff so in the case that I do get a migraine attack, it doesn’t set me back too much. In fact, it can sometimes be a source of self-confidence. If I can do well on an exam while my head is exploding, surely I must actually know something!

Nigam with her dog Murphy hiking in Garden of the Gods
Nigam with her dog Murphy hiking in Garden of the Gods

What do you like to do in your free time?

I love hiking, spending time with my dog, reading, doing puzzles, and trying out new hobbies.

Why did you choose to attend the University of Illinois?

I was part of the Multicultural Engineering Recruitment for Graduate Education program when I was working on grad school applications. In the program, we had the opportunity to visit campus, learn about the degree programs, and talk to the department faculty and heads (including my current advisor). I felt that the department and environment was welcoming and valued its students. When it came time to decide, this experience, along with finding a good fit research-wise, was primarily why I chose UIUC.

Who is your adviser at Illinois and what are you studying?

My adviser is Professor Huy Tran and I am working on reinforcement learning algorithms for autonomous agents. I love the work the lab does because it’s the perfect intersection of my interest in AI and aerospace applications.

Are you involved with any extracurricular groups at UIUC?

Currently, I’m part of the leadership team for Minorities in Aerospace and part of grad Society of Women Engineers as a member and mentor. Although I haven’t met anyone in person because I started my degree during the pandemic, I’m glad to have met some awesome people through these groups.

What do you hope to do after you finish your degree program?

I’m honestly not sure at this point. I am interested in going into academia though and hope to explore that more during my degree program here.

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This story was published April 19, 2021.