Engineering students studying space sciences, astrophysics, or biosystems engineering have never known a world where space travel wasn’t possible. Coined as the Artemis generation, this next generation of engineers and explorers will play a critical role in reaching Mars and exploring the universe beyond. 

Likewise, this generation has been raised with a focus on tackling climate change and preserving the environment. Engineers are infusing environmentally conscious values and principles into their work, aimed at developing sustainable systems and designs for a greener future. 

Virginia Tech undergraduates Brandon Tapia and Lucy Waite have earned spots in the highly competitive 2023 class of Astronaut Scholars. Outside of the classroom, these two are performing groundbreaking undergraduate research to both improve the air we breathe on Earth and develop structures and materials designed to withstand harsh space environments outside of Earth’s atmosphere. 

Created in 1984 in honor of the Mercury 7 Astronauts, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation annually recognizes exceptional students in science, technology, engineering, and math for initiative, creativity, and excellence in their chosen fields.

The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation recognized Tapia, Waite, and other Astronaut Scholars during its Innovators Gala in late August at the Hilton Orlando in Florida. In addition to receiving financial support of up to $15,000, the scholars benefit from networking and mentoring opportunities with astronauts, alumni, and industry leaders; participation in the Michael Collins Family Professional Development Program; and a paid trip to attend the foundation’s Innovators Week, which provides an opportunity for the Astronaut Scholars to present their research at a technical conference.

Tapia and Waite join an elite group of Hokies previously honored by the foundation, including Arianna Krinos in 2017 and 2018, Jim Owens in 2019, Christine Faunce in 2020, Terelle Cadd in 2021, and Lennon Headlee and Timothy Proudkii in 2022.

Brandon Tapia receives his award from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.
Brandon Tapia (at right) is a senior from Herndon majoring in chemical engineering. Upon completing his education, he is interested in pursuing implementing academic research in industry. Photo courtesy of the Astronaut Scholar Foundation.

Brandon Tapia

  • Hometome: Herndon, Virginia
  • Class year: Senior
  • Major: Chemical engineering with minors in green engineering and chemistry

Tapia has ambitions to develop critical materials for combating climate change and having a positive impact on society. Levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are at record highs, and we are already experiencing the effects of global warming. 

Tapia is currently conducting research on campus within Stephen Martin’s research group, focusing on capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air that we breathe. Specifically, his research is focused on carbon dioxide capture using a porous carbon powder consisting of activated carbon with an amine functionalization. This low-cost carbon-based filter traps and bonds to the carbon dioxide, allowing other gasses in the air to pass though, and functions even in humid conditions. 

“Brandon has been an enthusiastic researcher, and he has consistently performed at a level normally associated with students in a masters or Ph.D. program,” said Martin, associate professor in the department of Chemical Engineering. “He is extremely motivated and is not afraid to develop his own ideas and experiment with new approaches. Brandon is one of the best undergraduate researchers to have worked in my lab over the last 17 years.”

Tapia understands that when complex research is complete, it also must be explained. In order to gain experience developing and communicating results, he joined the Consulting Group at Virginia Tech. The student-run group provides pro-bono consulting to local clients up to Fortune 500 companies. Tapia has been afforded the opportunity to work on diverse projects including a business opportunity plan for a polymers company, social media strategy for a Virginia Tech research group, and a market entry plan for an oil and gas capital equipment supplier.

Throughout his undergraduate experience, Tapia has served as a senior student leader for Residential Well-being, an undergraduate teaching assistant, and the Tutoring Chair for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. He served as a visiting summer researcher in the Smith Research Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developing simulations for ladder polymers utilizing integrated Monte Carlo and molecular dynamics techniques, and as a research intern at Independent Project Analysis Inc. in Ashburn, Virginia. 

Post-graduation, Tapia plans to attend graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in chemical engineering focused on advanced materials. “My previous experiences and future goals provide a tangible path to my overarching goal — developing industrially useful carbon capture materials to reduce the impact of climate change — to actually change the world and the air that we breathe,” he said.

Brandon Tapia receives his award from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.
Lucy Waite (at right) is a senior from Herndon majoring in aerospace engineering. Upon completing her education, she is interested in developing habitat systems for human spaceflight missions. Photo courtesy of the Astronaut Scholar Foundation.

Lucy Waite

  • Hometown: Herndon, Virginia
  • Class year: Senior
  • Major: Aerospace engineering with a minor in mathematics

Waite’s aspirations are to create systems and structures that will allow astronauts, and perhaps one day general people, to live in and explore space far beyond our home planet. 

When she arrived at Virginia Tech, Waite immersed herself in engineering clubs and activities. After a brief stint with the Design, Build, Fly student design team, Waite shifted her focus to performing undergraduate research. She worked with W. Nathan Alexander on aeroacoustic research, specifically measuring unmanned autonomous vehicle noise in the anechoic open-jet wind tunnel, and she participated on a modular CubeSat research team sponsored by Northrop Grumman. Yet through her coursework, she felt pulled to the research area of structures and materials and joined Yao "Yolanda" Fu’s research group in the Materials for High Temperature and Corrosive Environments Lab

Waite is currently working toward characterizing additively manufactured Inconel 718, a material known for its high temperature resistance and strength. Printing additively manufactured metals under different 3D-printed parameters has a direct effect on their material properties. Waite is putting these material samples through strain and stress testing and working to find methodologies that work for testing such properties. The goal is to create new, stronger materials that are resistant to extreme temperatures as found in high-speed applications such as rocket or jet engines. 

“Lucy was one of the top students in my class,” said Fu, associate professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering. “She later became an undergraduate researcher in my group and worked on understanding the high temperature thermomechanical performance of additively manufactured alloys. She has proven to be a very diligent and outstanding undergraduate researcher. She has made remarkable progress in successfully extracting mechanical properties at room temperature and is working on extending to the high temperature regime.” 

Waite has previously completed internships with Heron Systems, the Federal Aviation Administration, Northrop Gumman and The Aerospace Corporation. She is currently president of the Society of Women Engineers chapter on campus and holds her private pilot’s license. She is currently working toward her master's degree through the Accelerated Undergraduate/Graduate Degree program.

Once she completes her master's degree, Waite hopes to support the current Deep Space Habitat projects being done at NASA and other aerospace groups around the world. “I want my engineering legacy to help support robust structures and civilizations that will one day be on the moon, Mars, and beyond,” said Waite.  

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