New AE student’s learning-by-doing summer fellowship


Debra Levey Larson

Dumisani Rashid
Dumisani Rashid

Dumisani Rashid may be a new aerospace engineering transfer student, but he is not new to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Most recently, he completed a summer research program on campus at the Joint AdvaNced PropUlsion InStitute, also known as JANUS. He lived in a dorm for 10 weeks while working on advanced space propulsion Hall-effect plasma thrusters. The project uses a space simulation vacuum chamber to help Joshua Rovey’s research group and NASA develop new advanced rocket engines for deep space exploration missions to the moon, Mars, and beyond.

Rashid did his first two years of college at Harold Washington and Wilbur Wright, both City Colleges of Chicago.

“Last fall, my Calculus III teacher, who was an Illinois alum, posted an announcement about the summer fellowship. It said, ‘If you want to do work on rockets, here’s an opportunity.’ Despite my own self-doubts, I applied and got it,” Rashid said.

The self-doubts dissipated as Rashid became acclimated to the subject matter.

“I expected it to be a lot more difficult based on the description of the program I read on the website. It was written very technically. And although it is difficult, I don’t feel like I stumbled about. I slowly began to understand and get good results.”

Rashid said his first assignment this summer was to update some standard operating procedures for the lab.

“The group is planning to move the vacuum chamber to a different location and needed an accurate CAD model in SolidWorks to determine where it will fit best in the new floorplan.  I had experience with AutoCAD from school, but it’s different from SolidWorks so I had to learn those differences to use that software,” he said. “After that, the main thing I worked on and completed had to do with a thrust stand and a target to test sputter rates.”

Dumisani Rashid at work in Talbot Lab.
Dumisani Rashid at work in Talbot Lab.

For his next assignment, Rashid had to learn Blender, an animation software.

“They wanted a short animation to use at a presentation at a conference in Michigan in July,” he said. “I had to learn how to use Blender to animate a Carbon 12 back sputter effect to visualize it. I’d never been exposed to the concept of back sputter, but electricity and magnetism was one of the last classes I took before coming here for the summer. It became easier when I actually got to talk with others on the program. And I could say, oh it’s just ions hitting carbon.”

When he started working with Blender, he thought it would take him about a week to complete but took a lot longer than that. He became a frequent visitor to one of the Blender help sites. “It went down for about a week, but it still went well. It felt good to produce something from beginning to end.”

Toward the end of the summer fellowship, Rashid accompanied Rovey’s lab group to the meetings in Michigan.

“I was in the room when Dr. Rovey showed off the Blender animation and later heard that he got comments from a few people saying it helped them grasp the concept better, which I was glad to hear.

And because the conference was not just to reconvene but also to share and explain what the other divisions across universities were doing, a lot of it was very technical and difficult to understand at first. But at a poster session I was able to ask people about their work. These explanations were a lot clearer. I learned a lot while I was there, made many connections, and was able to walk around in Michigan’s room-sized vacuum chamber.”

About the entire summer Rashid said, “I felt like the work is difficult, but like it’s within my reach. Even the things I don’t fully understand yet. I feel like I can learn them and then do them.”

Even before getting the fellowship, Rashid knew he wanted to transfer to Illinois and study aerospace engineering.

“My earliest memory is watching movies with my grandmother and that scene in Star Wars where Luke and Leia swing across the Death Star.”

Rashid said his father and mother met at Illinois while getting their bachelor’s degrees in sociology in 1998. His father also earned a Ph.D. in educational policy studies at UIUC. Most every year, they brought Dumisani and his siblings to campus for the Engineering Open House, so he was already familiar with UIUC and the engineering campus.

“I’ve always been about space, and I’ve always wanted to do research, but the open house was kind of the main driving factor for me to apply here. I saw all of the cool stuff at the open house.”

When he’s not doing math and science, Rashid said he likes to walk, play video games, and write science fiction. He hopes to one day turn his outline into a book with his heroine scientist Kha’jet and her escapades between Earth and Jupiter.