Three AE undergrads receive fellowships

2/12/2024 Debra Levey Larson

Written by Debra Levey Larson

Three aerospace engineering undergraduates have an exciting summer ahead of them. They were each awarded fellowships that include being paired with two senior or executive-level mentors and a paid summer internship.  They were selected from over 450 applicants.

Ariette Kaberlein
Ariette Kaberlein

Ariette Kaberlein is a junior in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a minor in Computer Science. She will intern this summer with SpaceX.

Kaberlein remembers watching the maiden flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy in 2018 and being captivated when the two side boosters of the rocket returned perfectly upright at the landing sites. This summer, she is thrilled to join SpaceX’s West Coast Recovery Operations team and further contribute to the amazing field of reusable launch vehicles.

In her first year at Illinois, Kaberlein said she struggled with understanding how aerospace technologies fit in a world alongside devastating environmental issues.  

“As sophomore year began, I was dedicated toward understanding my predicament,” she said. “I ingrained sustainability into my activities and joined the Contextual Engineering Research Group on campus—a group determined to contextualize their engineering into real impacts.” Kaberlein said the group helped her find a place as a researcher for the equity of electric vehicle adoption.

“After being introduced to the world of EVs, I decided to continue this path of sustainable engineering as an electrification intern last summer for Brunswick Corporation,” she said. “Through these experiences, I realized I truly could have a satisfying scientific career as an engineer while still promoting sustainable practices.”

Now in her third year, Kaberlein said when she learns of environmentally unethical and harmful practices in the industry, she refuses to distance herself and remain comfortable. “I strongly want to be a part of the industry to find sustainable solutions for aerospace technologies.”

Nithya Koneru
Nithya Koneru

Nithya Koneru is a sophomore at Illinois. She will intern this summer with Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Koneru said she became keenly interested in the Perseverance Mars Rover—first concerning its entry, descent, and landing.

“The dainty rover had to complete its grueling journey and drop from a speed of 12,500 miles per hour to zero. In seven minutes. An insane feat only made possible by advanced parachute technology and landing equipment which, along with its other instruments, were designed by engineers,” Koneru said.

During her first semester of college, she joined the Bretl Research Group. Through the robotics projects she worked on in that group, it became increasingly clear that she wanted to combine her passion for building tools for robotic systems with her love of overs like Perseverance.

Last summer she built her own differential drive robot from the ground up in simulation.

“That project forged the path to a research opportunity on campus this year,” Koneru said. “I am now deploying navigation algorithms onto a wheelchair. PURE is a self-balancing ball-bot wheelchair that works like BB-8.”

Navya Meka
Navya Meka

Navya Meka is also a junior at Illinois, majoring in aerospace engineering with a minor in the Hoeft Technology and Management Program. She will also be interning this summer with SpaceX.

Last summer, Meka was an engineering intern at Inversion Space, a start-up company that designs space reentry vehicles, in Los Angeles.

She said, “I enjoyed the fast-paced startup environment, and I think SpaceX will be similar in that way. SpaceX is a much larger company though, so the experience will be unique.

“I have wanted to work at SpaceX since I first began my aerospace career. I am excited to join a group of highly ambitious interns this summer and contribute to the future of communications and space technology.”

Meka said she is looking forward to receiving mentorship and guidance in her career from people who have substantial experience in the aerospace industry. Being part of the Starlink team is especially meaningful for her.

“In addition to Starlink being an extremely fascinating engineering project, it has an enormous global impact in the way it unites different parts of the world,” Meka said. “I love being able to contribute to the future of space exploration in a way that gives back to and improves life on earth.”

During her time so far at Illinois, Meka led the recovery systems team on the Spaceshot interdisciplinary rocketry team of Illinois Space Society. This year she is leading the project, working with seven sub teams in designing a two-stage high-altitude. She has also served as the Internal Vice President of UIUC’s Women in Aerospace chapter, tutored for The Grainger College of Engineering, and taught an aerospace new student orientation class.

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This story was published February 12, 2024.