Humans of Fung: Andria Sperry, MEng ’21 (NE)
On her MEng capstone experience, work at NASA, and long-term goals of space exploration.
Andria Sperry graduated from the Berkeley MEng program in 2021, where she studied Nuclear Engineering. Here, Andi speaks about her MEng experience, engineering successes in water purification systems, and long-term goals of space exploration.
How did your personal background lead you to your area of study?
I have always had big aspirations and an interest in outer space. As an adult, I found a childhood note that I had written and tucked away in my parents’ home. On Winnie-the-Pooh stationary, I set life goals for myself. Included in the list of aspirations were my intentions to be famous like Elvis Presley, travel the world, become a pilot, work for NASA, and most notably become the first woman to set foot on Mars.
Today, only a few of my goals have changed — I don’t want to be as famous as Elvis. After several tours of duty in the military, I sought opportunities to prepare to be a NASA astronaut. It was these opportunities and experiences that led me to my acceptance at the University of Michigan where I am currently pursuing my PhD in nuclear engineering.
My first introduction of nuclear technology for space application was within my role as a NASA Aerospace Scholar. I earned an invitation to compete in a Mars rover competition at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center for my Mars rover design concept. This experience introduced me to radioisotope thermoelectric generators and to the requirements and complexities of energy in extreme environments. I was hooked!
In my sophomore year of my undergraduate degree, I started working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in the Cryogenics and Fluids department. In my three years there, I got the opportunity to work on two space missions, The Robotics Refueling Mission 3 (RRM3) and X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM). I learned the value of teamwork when designing and building space systems. Working intimately on space-flight hardware, I wrote and processed work-order procedures and authorization paperwork needed for every step and action. During this experience, I learned that accomplishing a large mission requires a dedicated team of individuals and an ability to navigate the governmental bureaucracy. NASA taught me how complex government missions operate.
In my senior year of undergrad, I went on to join a fellowship program at George Washington University. As an independent researcher, I designed a fission-powered energy system concept for a Mars surface habitat. This experience solidified my passion for nuclear power systems and was the catalyst for my pursuit to research similar topics through further graduate studies.
After graduation, I accepted a position as a mechanical engineer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This experience brought home the untapped potential of nuclear power. My project, Joint Actinide Shock Physics Experimental Research (JASPER), which was a two-stage gas gun, helps to better the understanding of properties of radioactive chemical elements at high shock pressures, temperatures, and strain rates.
Although I loved my work at LLNL and could see a future there, I ultimately felt there was more I needed to learn if I was to reach my goals and make the type of impact I wanted. I applied and was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, to pursue my Masters of Engineering in nuclear engineering. At UC Berkeley, working with a small team of students under the supervision of Dr. Edward Morse, we designed a whole house water purification concept that utilized low-temperature atmospheric plasma to break down contaminants. This experience dialed in my goals once more to focus on plasma physics. It was the stepping stone I needed to transition from a mechanical engineer to a nuclear engineer.
The culmination of these experiences has led me to my acceptance into my current PhD program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in the Plasma Science and Technology Laboratory, where my research will pertain to plasma space propulsion. Nuclear power and propulsion fascinate me. I know the only way we are to explore the depths of space is by advancing these systems.
Ultimately, I found that being open to new opportunities and staying focused and dedicated allowed me to achieve my goals and discover the area of study best suited for me. Although I am not as famous as Elvis, I have something much more admirable: grit. Grit allowed me to balance the demands of being a full-time engineering student while raising my two children and supporting my husband’s career, whose position as an active-duty military officer requires years of deployment. Grit allowed me to break the cycle of systemic addiction and poverty in my family and leave the small farming community I grew up in to join the US Coast Guard and allowed me to be the first college graduate in my extended family.
I still have that childhood note and read it to my two daughters in the hope of instilling in them the same grit and commitment to their dreams that I have relied on to pursue mine.
What encouraged your focus on space exploration?
I have always been fascinated by space exploration — I mean, who isn’t? My fondest childhood memories are of watching Star Trek the Next Generation with my father. In addition to exploring space, I was inspired by the ideals and intellect of those StarFleet officers.
It wasn’t until a few years after my military enlistment that I recognized my own potential. The exact moment of clarity was instantaneous. I remember it so clearly. My family (husband and two children) lived near Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, FL. When the rockets would launch, you could watch it from my front yard, and the whole house would vibrate from the sound. It was in that moment, watching a rocket soar, that something clicked. I could do that. I could go to space, and I could be an engineer.
That classic saying, “you can be anything you want to be” has stayed with me throughout my career. Watching the rockets, I reminded myself of this and realized that I could do anything and that the only person holding me back was me! It sounds trivial, but it’s extremely freeing when you truly internalize it.
What are your professional goals?
My short-term goals are to thrive in my PhD program. I want to provide impactful research to the field of electric/plasma space propulsion.
As for my long-term goals, I semi-jokingly say I want to be the next Zefram Cochrane. He is the fictional character in Star Trek that invented the warp drive engine, which made humans a spacefaring species. Ultimately, I want to be an astronaut and continue to provide impactful research in the field of space exploration. Currently, I am working out the details of these goals by considering either staying in academia or moving to a position in a national lab. Either way, I will be keeping my eye out for a postdoc position.
How does your current position relate to your MEng experience and your long term goals?
My MEng degree allowed me to engage in nuclear engineering and bridge the gap between my undergrad mechanical engineering degree and my nuclear engineering PhD program. My MEng capstone project, Non-Thermal Plasma Water Purification at Home, is another application of plasma.
Plasma has the ability to break down the toughest of chemical bonds and holds the key to removing/eliminating contamination in drinking water. Because of my MEng capstone project, I realized that plasma is awesome, and it’s everywhere! Most people don’t realize that 99.9% of the universe is made of plasma!
What kind of impact do you want to have on the world?
I hope to develop the means to send us to the depths of the universe. As Carl Sagan said, “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.” We exist in the tiniest fraction of the universe. There is so much to be seen, discovered, and learned. I hope that my research can directly lead to a space-faring civilization.
What are some of your hobbies/passions?
In my spare time, I am a STEM counselor for my daughter’s cub scout pack. This is my second year doing it and I really enjoy inspiring young minds and teaching them that they are capable of anything.
Edited by Ella Rochelle-Lawton.