An interview with a graduate: Miron F. Liu, BS '23

5/22/2023 Debra Levey Larson

Written by Debra Levey Larson

Miron J. Liu
Miron J. Liu

Miron F. Liu is from Macomb, Illinois. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in May 2023 and will be pursuing a master's degree at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor.

Why aerospace engineering?

My interest in aerospace engineering  has my high school alma mater, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy to thank. The exact event that led me down the path of aerospace engineering presented itself as one of the four admissions essay prompts. The prompt was –

“Part of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy's mission is to ‘advance the human condition’ […] how do you hope to apply your education in the future to further the Academy's mission?”

Up to that point, my interests in STEM were honestly rooted in nothing more than curiosity. Being asked how I planned to “advance the human condition” legitimately threw my middle-school self into a period of panicked, existential self-reflection. What could I do to achieve such a lofty goal?

After much introspection, I ultimately arrived at the conclusion that advancing the exploration and development of space to secure a multi-planetary future for humanity would be my way of adhering to the academy’s mission. From that day forward, I resolved to become an aerospace engineer.

Why did you choose to study at UIUC?

Electric propulsion interested me even before undergrad, so I applied to schools that had ongoing electric propulsion research. UIUC was one. In my admissions essay, I mentioned that I wanted to do undergraduate research in the UIUC EP lab. Aside from EP research, my choice to attend UIUC came down to three other factors. The biggest one was UIUC’s Illinois Commitment program which guaranteed four years of free tuition for students from a lower socio-economic background like me.

Being able to graduate relatively debt-free was very appealing. Another factor was that many students in my high school graduating class committed to UIUC. Knowing that I would immediately start out with a strong support network at UIUC alleviated some of the stress associated with the transition to college. Lastly, my roommate at IMSA had also committed to UIUC, so it was reassuring to know that I would have a…tolerable…roommate my freshman year (Jk haha, love ya Justin). Due to the aforementioned factors, I knew I would likely have a good time at UIUC – and I have!

2019 Hybrid Rocket Team hydrostatic test with old engine combustion chamber
2019 Hybrid Rocket Team hydrostatic test with old engine combustion chamber

What helped you choose your specialty?

I’m proud to say that I have held the title of number one fan of aerospace propulsion (self-proclaimed) at UIUC for all four years of my undergrad. I was pretty much dead set on specializing in propulsion even before undergrad, so there wasn’t necessarily a particular course that helped me choose. However, the gamut of core, junior year courses (311/312, 321/323, 352/353) covering fluids, structures, and dynamics/controls, respectively, did help me realize that structures and dynamics/controls did not come to me as intuitively as fluids. As a result, I became even more certain that pursuing a propulsion-related specialization was the right path for me.

What projects have you worked on that stand out?

Thanks to the Illinois Space Society, the largest aerospace registered student organization at UIUC, I’ve been pretty involved in various technical student projects throughout most of my undergrad.

As a freshman, I joined a team participating in the NASA Minnesota Space Grant Midwest High-Power Rocket Launch Competition as the rocket airframe lead. In my sophomore year, I joined the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition team as the rocket structures lead. Junior year I was lucky enough to serve as the technical project manager for two propulsion projects with ISS – the assembly and testing of a nitrous-paraffin hybrid rocket engine and the research and design of an ammonium-perchlorate composite propellant solid rocket motor.

The propulsion projects stand out as the most rewarding, but they were also the most stressful, hands down. Managing two technical projects while juggling the junior year course load, flight school, undergraduate research, and responsibilities a residence hall RA taught me a thing or two about the perils of stretching myself too thin. Thankfully, everything worked out in the end, but I regret not being able to commit as much time to both projects as I would have liked.

Did you have any internships or study abroad experiences? Where? What did you do?

Among my aerospace friends, I’m in the minority in that I have not had an industry internship at all. I’ve sort of invested 100 percent in the research path, instead.

The summer following my sophomore year, I got the opportunity to work at the EP Lab as an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program research intern sponsored by NASA Illinois Space Grant Consortium. Working at the EP Lab was exactly what I wanted to do since applying to UIUC, so this was a very exciting opportunity for me. I really enjoyed the work, so I continued assisting with research in the lab as an independent study throughout my junior year. I returned to work at the EP Lab as a UROP research intern once again the following summer and have continued working in the EP lab to the present.

My primary research focus has been electrospray diagnostics, specifically, the design and testing of a low-cost linear time-of-flight mass spectrometer and retarding-potential analyzer for electrospray plume diagnostics. This year, my research focus has expanded to laser-ablation-manufacturing of Air Force Electrospray Thruster emitter arrays as an alternative to conventional machining as well as the investigation of secondary ionic emissions in electrospray plume diagnostics.         

In terms of study abroad experience, I am taking a course in preparation for a study-abroad in Brazil this summer. The course, AE398 Global Experience – Brazil, is offered annually in the spring and gives UIUC students the opportunity to work collaboratively with students in Brazil on an aeronautical/aviation consulting project. Two days after graduation, many of my friends and I will be leaving for Sao Paulo, Brazil for a 10-day trip – a fantastic conclusion to our undergrad journeys.

Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition test launch team picture
Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition test launch team picture

What extracurricular experience stands out as memorable for you?

Out of all the extracurriculars I’ve been involved in during my undergrad, the ISS Hybrid Rocket Engine team has by far been my favorite. The ISS HRE team was started in 2018 with the mission of designing, testing, and flying an 18 kN-s nitrous-paraffin hybrid rocket engine on a student-built sounding rocket to compete in the 30,000 ft altitude category of the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition. The engine would be the first student-researched-and-designed, flight-capable hybrid rocket engine developed at UIUC. I joined the team during my freshman year and fell in love with the work. The summer following my freshman year, I helped author a state-of-progress paper Development of a Nytrox-Paraffin Hybrid Rocket Engine which was submitted and presented at the AIAA Propulsion and Energy 2020 Forum.

I eventually stepped up to lead the team in my junior year where I oversaw the manufacture and hydrostatic testing of all critical engine components as well as a final cold-flow test of the assembled engine to conclude the year. The most memorable moments are our first and last hydrostatic tests we conducted at the University of Illinois Willard Airport’s retired jet engine testing facility where we pressurized our combustion chamber and oxidizer tank to 650 psi and 980 psi (1.5x their operating pressures), respectively. Seeing your design work, calculations, and analysis work translated into real components and succeeding during testing is an amazing feeling.

What led to your decision to go to graduate school and pursue a Ph.D.?

Inherent interest in propulsion research aside, my decision to pursue graduate studies has Christopher Lyne, Dr. Rovey, and the rest of the EP lab students to thank. Christopher Lyne is a Ph.D. candidate at the EP Lab and has been my research mentor since my first summer working at the lab as a NASA UROP research intern. I am very grateful to Chris for his patience and graciousness in entrusting me with research work and for believing in my capabilities. I would likely not be starting my grad school journey without the experience and confidence I’ve gained under his mentorship.

I am also very grateful to Dr. Rovey for his continual support of my undergraduate research in his lab, and for his encouragement for me to pursue grad school. As a first-generation immigrant coming from a lower socio-economic background, imposter syndrome has always been a lingering source of self-doubt. If I decided to pursue grad school, I would be the first in all my extended family to pursue a Ph.D. Frankly, I was unsure if I was up to this task. I went to Dr. Rovey for advice. He took me seriously and answered my questions with patience and thoughtfulness and told me that he had no doubt I would succeed as a Ph.D. student - this was incredibly validating to hear. He enthusiastically agreed to write me a letter of recommendation to support my application. In addition, every grad student I’ve spoken with at the lab has also been very supportive of my decision to go to grad school.

I am forever grateful to Chris, Dr. Rovey, and everyone else at the EP Lab for mentoring me throughout my time at the lab, helping me work through my reservations about attending grad school, and for making me feel empowered to pursue my passion for propulsion research.

First Hybrid Rocket Team hydrostatic test
First Hybrid Rocket Team hydrostatic test

You’ll be at University of Michigan Ann Arbor, in the same lab Dr. Rovey worked in for his Ph.D. - the Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory. Who will you be working with there and what will you be doing?

I am very grateful to have Professor Benjamin Jorns, one of the co-directors of PEPL, as my advisor throughout my graduate studies at University of Michigan. I haven’t committed to any project in particular at the time of this writing, but there are a couple of topics that I’m likely/hoping to work on.

The focus of my undergraduate research has been electrospray thrusters, a method of electric propulsion that relies on electrostatic force to extract ions from an ionic liquid and accelerate them to high velocities, generating thrust. There happens to be a 5th-year Ph.D. student at PEPL working on high-power electrospray thrusters, so I may be passed the torch to continue electrospray research at PEPL after he graduates.

I’m certainly not attached to electrospray research only, of course. There are other, equally fascinating technologies to explore. In particular, I’m really rooting for magneto-plamsadynamic thrusters to make a quicker comeback. MPD thrusters are currently the highest power electric propulsion architecture and are a candidate architecture for nuclear-electric propulsion, which will enable more efficient interplanetary transfers at greatly reduced transfer times. Lastly, I am also interested in improving non-intrusive plasma diagnostics to better characterize the fundamental plasma-physics of various EP systems.

I know be working on cutting-edge EP research one way or another and I am very excited to see where my grad school journey takes me.

Do you have other career goals?

It’s a little niche, but my career stretch goal is to become the NASA Technical Fellow for Propulsion. NASA Technical Fellow positions are given to senior-level engineers and scientists with distinguished and sustained records of technical achievement who are the leading experts in their respective technical disciplines. The positions are by appointment only, so it’s not actually a position I can apply to. I suppose the journey to become one is the real goal.

Specifically, I hope that I become so highly knowledgeable about the field of propulsion, gain so much experience working with various teams on interesting technologies and contribute to advancing the field of propulsion to such a degree, that I will be considered for appointment to this esteemed position.

Fun fact, the current Propulsion Technical Fellow, Dr. Daniel J. Dorney, is an alum of UIUC aerospace. I had a chance to meet him and speak with him during the aerospace alumni weekend in the fall, which was a real treat.

What’s on your bucket list of must-dos for the next 5 years?

Hmm, I can’t really think of any absolute must-dos for the next five years – maybe aside from receiving my Ph.D. – but the following are a few of my want-to-dos.

  1. I really enjoy flying so I think working towards my instrument rating within the next few years would be a good investment for me to become a better, safer pilot.
  2. I started bouldering and rock climbing this past fall and absolutely fell in love with the hobby. I’d say successfully conquering my first V7 (difficulty level) route is a reasonable goal for me to work towards within the next five years. The highest rated bouldering route I’ve completed successfully so far is a V5+.
  3. I like running and I’ve been meaning to train for a half-marathon for the longest time, but the undergrad course load made it a bit difficult to commit to longer-distance running, so completing a half-marathon (or full marathon) is on the list.
  4. Before becoming interested in aerospace I was really into computer hardware. I still am, and performing LN2 over locking for the first time has been on my bucket list for a while.
  5. Overall, I think just generally being able to pursue my passions outside of academia and having a good work-life balance is my main goal for the next five years.

What advice would you like to share with AE undergrads?

Man do I feel the pressure with this question. I don’t know if I consider myself wise enough to be giving advice to the next generation of undergrads – but I’ll chalk that up to impostor syndrome and give it my best shot. Unfortunately, I don’t really have a sagacious quote at the ready to offer my juniors, but what I can do is discuss some of the strategies I’ve used to stave off the worst of impostor syndrome.

Keep in mind that almost everyone faces impostor syndrome in college to some degree. I found it reassuring to know I was not the only one feeling this way. A professor I spoke with mentioned that they grapple with impostor syndrome as well - even a professor who is literally at the top of their craft experiences it from time to time.

Join an RSO and involve yourself in a technical project. I came in with almost no knowledge about rockets or planes while it seemed like everyone and their dog could talk about their favorite launch vehicle or aircraft for days. Joining an active RSO project not only helped me gain technical skills and knowledge, but also increased my confidence in contributing to technical discussions as well. Surrounding yourself with knowledgeable, passionate folks can be intimidating, but it’s also the best way to learn.

Make friends and build each other up. I can say with confidence that I would not have weathered undergrad as well as I have without the homies. Holding each other accountable, keeping each other motivated, and building each other up got us all further than each of us on our own. Don’t be afraid to talk about your feelings with someone you trust. Words of affirmation from a friend can cut through the hardest of midterm weeks.

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This story was published May 22, 2023.