If you were introduced to one of NASA’s aerospace engineers, what assumptions might you make? Near-genius who romped through advanced calculus? Someone who daydreams about physics? A rare individual who designs complex structures with the ease of a child building a sand castle?
If so, you haven’t met Austin Lovan.
“I’m different than a lot of the students who study engineering here,” says Austin. “I got B’s in high school, got a low score on my ACT and barely got into UK. I’m not super smart; I just became a hard worker and committed a lot of time.”
Ilka Balk, Director of Engineering Cooperative and International Programs agreed with that assessment when talking about Austin. “What is remarkable about Austin,” she says, “is that he came in as a weaker math student. He came into the college as a freshman who was not ‘ready’ to take Calculus I. Austin didn’t appear to have the math that his peers had, or the science background he needed to be an engineer. His ACT scores suggested his odds of becoming an engineer were questionable.”
Honoring the time commitment required for succeeding in UK’s mechanical engineering program enabled Austin to handle challenging courses. “The first two years are mostly calculus, physics and chemistry and, for me, those classes were actually the hardest part of acquiring my degree,” he says. “You have to be committed; otherwise you’re not going to get the grades you want.”
Proving that first impressions can be misleading, Balk saw a student succeed academically with tremendous work ethic and determination. “He has graduated in five years,” she says, “including three co-op terms. Since starting co-op, he has earned all A’s and one B. Nobody expected him to do this well!”
“You don’t have to master advanced calculus in high school to be successful in the College of Engineering. I ended up with a 3.6 GPA here at UK, was involved on campus and got a job at NASA. It’s all about how hard you want to work.”
Once Austin had the foundations in place and began taking mechanical engineering classes, he came across an opportunity that radically influenced his future career path: UK’s Cooperative Education Program.
“The co-op experience is the best thing that has ever happened to me—literally—in my whole life. It set me up for everything,” Austin says with utmost seriousness.
For his remarkable accomplishments, Austin was named the Lou Takacs Engineering Cooperative Education Award recipient and received the UK College of Engineering Alumni Association’s Senior Leadership Award. He was also a finalist for the National Co-op of the Year Award, which is given by the Cooperative and Experiential Education Division (CEED) of the American Society for Engineering Educations (ASEE).
During his last two years on campus, Austin was president of UK’s chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and served as the group’s vice president and secretary. He was also the team leader for UK’s 20-person Design/Build/Fly team and was the steering lead for UK’s Solar Car Team when it competed in the 2008 North American Solar Challenge, a race that runs from Texas to Canada.
Austin’s faculty advisor in mechanical engineering, Dr. Johne´ Parker describes him as “curious and innovative, with a strong engineering intuition and a stronger work ethic. Since Austin is helpful, highly self-motivated and always willing to go the extra mile, I have asked him to speak to my class to help them better understand the usefulness of the course for mechanical engineers. In summary, Austin is the student that everyone wants to have in their classes, on their research team or in their co-op rotations.”
Dr. Suzanne Smith, the Donald and Gertrude Lester Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the Director of the NASA Kentucky Space Grant Consortium and EPSCoR Programs had a chance to work with Austin closely as the advisor for the Design/Build/Fly team. “Austin leads with confidence,” she says. “Regardless of the task or his prior experience when starting, he has shown great abilities and past accomplishments, so new challenges are met with the knowledge and confidence that they will be successfully accomplished as well. Austin works independently and has already established an extensive network of NASA and industry colleagues that he can contact when new opportunities arise and would benefit from a broader perspective. In short, Austin does not shy away from taking on leadership roles, while maintaining the highest academic standards, because he knows how to balance coursework with extracurricular activities. I am excited to follow all the exciting things that Austin will do after he graduates.”
Participation in the co-op program allowed Austin to gain valuable industry experience and engineering knowledge that helped him land at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX where he would have the benefit of three separate rotations. During his final rotation, Austin got involved in robotics, collaborating on a new humanoid robot called Robonaut 2.
Austin explains that his interest in robots comes from a sense of curiosity. “Gene Cernan, the last human to set foot on the moon, once said, ‘Curiosity is the essence of human existence.’” “I believe without curiosity in science, technology and exploration, humankind will not prevail. I plan to nurture my curiosity of science and technology through the advancement of robotics.”
Austin describes Robonaut 2 as “a dexterous humanoid robot that has an upper body with arms, hands, fingers and a head—just like a human. It’s meant to assist an astronaut on the space station and, perhaps down the road, on another planet.”
Robonaut 2 was packed aboard the space shuttle Discovery in its recent launch to the International Space Station. Joshua Mehling, Robonaut Lead Mechanical Engineer at the Johnson Space Center, says, “Austin Lovan can be thanked for playing an indispensible role for NASA’s Robotic Systems Technology Branch during this undertaking.”
Austin will likely be a part of Robonaut 2’s future because he will soon be heading back to Houston a fourth time—now as a full-time aerospace engineer. None of it would have been possible, he says, without the co-op program. “I tell every university freshman or senior in high school that they need to get in the co-op program. It is the best way to get a job and gain invaluable engineering experience.”
As he looks back on his amazing journey through the mechanical engineering program, Austin reflects on the change he underwent from decent high school student to NASA aerospace engineer. “You don’t have to master advanced calculus in high school to be successful in the College of Engineering,” he insists. “I ended up with a 3.6 GPA here at UK, was involved on campus and got a job at NASA. It’s all about how hard you want to work.”