Not one but two Virginia Tech aerospace engineering students have been selected as Aviation Week’s “20 Twenties” for 2024. Master's degree student Eszter Anna Varga and undergraduate Lucy Waite, along with 18 other students from across the globe, were identified as top aerospace-bound individuals from an international field of highly qualified candidates. 

This year, there were 100 nominees from 48 colleges and universities representing 13 countries. More than half of the 2024 winners identify as female.

The annual award, sponsored by Aviation Week in collaboration with Accenture, recognizes STEM students nominated by their universities on the basis of their academic performance, civic contribution, and research or design projects. The winners will be celebrated at the 20 Twenties Awards Luncheon in March and then honored during Aviation Week Network’s 66th annual Laureate Awards and Dinner at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

The 20 Twenties program launched in 2013, and Varga and Waite are respectively the fourth and fifth Virginia Tech students to receive the prestigious honor from Aviation Week. They join fellow aerospace and ocean engineering graduates James “JP” Stewart who was recognized in 2016, Samantha Rocker in 2019, and Terelle Cadd in 2022.

Virginia Tech Professor of Practice H. Pat Artis of the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering teaches each and every sophomore entering the department through his Introduction to Aerospace Engineering and Aircraft Performance class. As the semester progresses, he is able to pinpoint the leaders and top performers. 

“Eszter and Lucy possess burning passions for both flight and space,” said Artis, who spearheaded their nominations. “They each are working on complex research in their respective areas and are active in student organizations on campus. Despite the demands of their academics and research activities, both have devoted a large portion of their time to promoting the diversity and inclusion of women and other minorities in engineering.”

Eszter Anna Varga
Eszter Anna Varga. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Eszter Anna Varga

Varga, an international student from Hungary, is a 2023 graduate and currently pursuing her master’s degree in aerospace and ocean engineering. Despite the lack of opportunities in her native country for women in STEM and higher education, she now holds the distinction as one of the first Hungarian women to obtain a degree in aerospace engineering.

Prior to arriving in Blacksburg, she had never studied in English, had access to a research lab, or met another aerospace engineer. She quickly immersed herself into the Virginia Tech community, joining the Society of Women in Aviation and Space Exploration, Society of Women Engineers, and the national aerospace engineering honor society Sigma Gamma Tau. She also sought research experiences to complement her academic course load, and completed internships with GE Gas & Power and Wisk. 

The obstacles Varga faced on her journey have motivated her to uplift and empower other women in engineering. She served as a member of the Female Engineering Recruitment Leadership Team for the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity and authors a blog focused on her journey as a woman in STEM. In 2022, she founded the Aerospace Minority Program to empower women and gender minority students studying aerospace and ocean engineering. 

Varga is specializing her degree in systems safety and controls and is working on creating a time variant model for safety systems analysis for electric vertical lift air, also known as eVTOL, vehicles. 

“Inspiring others is the core tenet of Eszter’s world view,” said Artis. “I have never encountered a student who is so dedicated to inspiring others. Eszter is a once-in-a-generation-student for whom I believe is destined to be a leader in our industry.”

Lucy Waite
Lucy Waite. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Lucy Waite

Waite is a senior majoring in aerospace engineering and has aspirations to create systems and structures that will allow astronauts to live in and explore space far beyond our home planet. 

While she has performed undergraduate research in various labs within the aerospace and ocean engineering department, Waite felt pulled to the research area of structures and materials. She has been working in Yao "Yolanda" Fu’s research group in the Materials for High Temperature and Corrosive Environments Lab, 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. Through strain and stress testing, 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. 

Waite has 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, worked three years as a tutor at the Student Success Center, and holds her private pilot’s license. 

In 2023, Waite was awarded the highly competitive Astronaut Scholarship, making her one of six Virginia Tech students ever to receive the prestigious award. The nonprofit organization was created by the surviving Mercury 7 astronauts in 1984 and is known nationwide for being among the largest merit-based monetary scholarships awarded to undergraduate STEM juniors and seniors. 

“Lucy has a truly unique mind,” said Artis. “It is a joy to watch her as she engages in a complex problem, disassembles it into components to which first principles-based solutions can be applied, and then logically reassembles a complete solution to the problem. While I have tried to teach this approach to students over my career, it is a skill that less than 5 percent arrive with and the rest are simply unable to learn.” 

Waite 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.

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