Lembeck honored with undergraduate research campus award


Debra Levey Larson

Michael F. Lembeck
Michael F. Lembeck

Aerospace engineering Professor Michael F. Lembeck was honored with the 2022 Campus Award for Excellence in Guiding Undergraduate Research. This award honors faculty for their excellence in involving and guiding undergraduate students in scholarly research, having a positive impact on student scholarship or intellectual development, and for their innovative approaches to guiding undergraduate research.

Since joining the faculty in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2018, Lembeck has built an undergraduate research program centered around university spaceflight projects and applications. The Laboratory for Advanced Space Systems at Illinois currently has more than 30 active undergraduate researchers from departments across The Grainger College of Engineering, including aerospace engineering, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical science and engineering, computer sciences, industrial and enterprise systems engineering, and physics.

“Michael Lembeck has a unique, student-first approach to guiding undergraduate researchers,” said Assistant Professor Zachary Putnam, who nominated Lembeck for the award. “He’s the research adviser who shows up in the lab at 2 a.m. to support students with pizza and chocolates. He recognizes every committed student is uniquely capable of contributing to a project; what the students lack is experience. He then shows students that on a complex technical project executed in the ‘real world,’ mistakes happen, you learn from them, and you move. He lets his students run as fast as they can toward their goals but is always there to catch them when they stumble and fall.”

Group visit to Fermi Lab.
Group visit to Fermi Lab

Lembeck has developed new courses at UIUC in spacecraft design, human spaceflight systems, and CubeSat design.

“I have witnessed significant changes to the CubeSat program since Dr. Lembeck arrived,” said Eric Alpine, BS ’19, MS ’21, and current Ph.D. candidate. “The transformation of the laboratory has impacted many, including me, by fostering a professional setting where students can develop technical skills related to space systems engineering. With extensive experience in the aerospace industry, and his dedication to student learning, I found my daily laboratory work and mentorship under Dr. Lembeck to be the most impactful component of my university education. I had the opportunity to identify my previous program management mistakes and learn first-hand the principles of good systems engineering as I contributed to the CAPSat program—a satellite that deployed from the International Space Station on October 12, 2021, successfully establishing communications with our ground station.”

Participation in Lembeck’s Laboratory for Advanced Space Systems at Illinois has inspired students to pursue research-oriented graduate degrees. “Professor Lembeck’s graduate research group is full of former undergraduate researchers who had originally planned on going to straight to industry,” Putnam said.

Alpine spoke highly of Lembeck’s commitment, particularly to undergraduate students who work in the lab--through independent study, the CubeSat course, the senior design course, or his research group. “Dr. Lembeck is continually engaged in student projects that immerse them in real-world engineering practices. I have witnessed older students and students with an initially low technical skillset, as I had, come to leave significant contributions to the laboratory throughout their undergraduate careers.”

Lembeck also serves as the faculty adviser to the Illinois Space Society, a registered student organization that pursues a variety of technical projects each academic year. His guidance has helped ISS achieve significant successes, such as the 2019 Micro-g Next NASA competition that won first place and received a prestigious award from the International Astronautical Federation.