Class of 2023: A childhood fascination leads to innovation in undergraduate research for Victor Mukora
It’s not surprising to hear that when Victor Mukora was a child, he loved Transformers, just like so many others have for decades. But when you realize he’s talking about electrical transformers — not the toy-turned-cartoon-turned-movie franchise — you can tell that Mukora is special.
“Growing up, I was always very passionate about and interested in electricity,” said Mukora, who will graduate this spring from the College of Science with a degree in computational modeling and data analytics.
Mukora, who moved to the United States from Kenya at an early age, said one of the words he was most proud of spelling as a first-grader was “electricity.” He watched videos of power stations and electrical transformers, doodled substations on his papers, and stood outside the fence of a local facility with his uncle “just so I could see what a substation looked like in close.”
When tasked to do an independent research study project in sixth grade, he chose to work on a hydroelectric-based project. As his interest in electricity continued to grow, he began exploring other energy harnessing methods, namely solar energy.
“Solar energy seemed interesting at that time,” said Mukora. “Originally coming from Africa, solar power is extremely applicable there because of the vast amount of sunlight it’s getting every minute.
“As I started going along into seventh and eighth grade, and then even going into high school, the topic just stuck with me. I started really seeing the capacity for solar energy to become such a tremendous resource for my country Kenya, as well as Africa and generally as a whole.”
In his high school magnet program, Mukora developed an interest in using computer science as a tool to improve the affordability and efficiency of solar panels. He worked on a project focused on devising a real-time machine learning model for a solar panel. The goal was to not only predict energy in real time, but also understand how weather conditions affect the panel and use that information to optimize its design or location.
That ambitious project — while it didn’t yield an ideal outcome — set the foundation for Mukora’s continued research at Virginia Tech. He first got involved with the DataBridge program, which is hosted by the University Libraries, working with Anne M. Brown, an assistant professor in research and informatics, and Jonathan Briganti, DataBridge manager.
In the initial stage of Mukora’s undergraduate research, he used various predictive models to analyze a dataset from UK Power Networks, which provided information on environmental variables along with corresponding solar panel generation values. With that data, Mukora wanted to understand how temperature affects the solar panel relative to, and in the presence of, other factors like barometric pressure or cloud cover. Through the help of his advisors, this work eventually resulted in a single-author publication in the Virginia Journal of Business, Technology, and Science.
“My whole research project has been building on understanding different aspects of how environmental conditions affect the panel, and how we can go from that to optimizing the design of a panel,” said Mukora. “Our research has been very computational, very data analytics driven, but I would eventually like to merge that area of research with actual materials science and the semiconductor physics of solar cells.”
Over time, Mukora’s research has gone from working with outside data sets to generating data with his own solar panel. His ultimate goal is to build a system that can estimate the profitability of a locality for solar harvesting based on not only the weather conditions for that area, but the panel design as well.
“Victor is a motivated and focused student who has embraced student-led research at Virginia Tech,” said Brown, who has served as an advisor to Mukora throughout his undergraduate career. By applying his data science training to a topic he is passionate about, she said, Mukora has earned the opportunity to present at local and national conferences as well as serve as an ambassador for the Office of Undergraduate Research.
In addition to providing network opportunities and a broader knowledge base, Mukora’s experience working in undergraduate research also has made a strong impact on his success as a student, earning him recognition as an Outstanding Senior in the Computational Modeling and Data Analytics program.
“I think the research has really provided a practicality aspect to what I’m learning in class, which also makes it easier to understand the material, reinforce it, and be able to be creative in the applications of it,” said Mukora. “It also gives you a touch of reality in what you’re doing, and not just expecting everything to always work out smoothly.”
Mukora will take those lessons with him to a job at Deloitte, where he will work as an analyst within the government public services sector. While there, he plans to gain professional experience in data science as well as perspective in the business realm. Down the road, Mukora is considering pursuing graduate school or working in the solar sector. Ultimately, he hopes to build his own solar energy-based company around the principles of greater affordability and efficiency.
“Victor embodies the spirit of Virginia Tech with his service, excellence for academics, and passion for innovation in research,” said Brown.
For Victor Mukora, what started out as a childhood obsession with electricity has transformed into a lifelong passion destined to create change for the greater good.