by John Torsiello
Several Fairfield University students who took part in a NASA research and outreach program in 2007 had their lives and careers shaped by their involvement with the project.
The four Fairfield students conducted experiments in conditions similar to outer space as part of NASA’s “Microgravity University.” As part of NASA’s highly competitive Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, the Fairfield team was asked to design an experiment that would be conducted in a weightless environment, much like astronauts do while in orbit.
The experiment, entitled “Splashless in Space,” examined the effect of atmospheric pressure on how droplets of liquid splash when they hit a hard surface. They used the microgravity environment onboard the plane to form large droplets.
The Fairfield study was designed to address dynamic problems that ranged from icing on aircraft wings to issues with ink-jet printing. The plane in which they carried out their experiment did steep climbs followed by equally steep descents, producing about 18 to 25 seconds of weightlessness. The plane made 32 of the gravity-free drops for students to run experiments, with gravitational forces ranging from zero to Martian-like levels, or one-third Earth’s gravity.
“Since participating in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program I completed my master’s at Fairfield, and went to Brown University,” said Brendan Hermalyn ’07 of the four-student group. “There, I received masters degrees in both geological sciences and engineering and recently graduated with my Ph.D in Planetary Science. I didn’t realize this at the time, but my experiences in the design, construction, and analysis of this project represented, in many ways, a direct precursor to my current work in experimental impact physics.”
Said team member John Stupak ’07: “Since graduation I have been enrolled in a physics Ph.D program at SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island. I have been doing research in high-energy physics. A little over three months ago, I moved to France to be closer to my collaborators at CERN (the international high-speed particle collider). I am currently conducting a search for a hypothetical particle known as a Leptoquark.”
After graduating from Fairfield, Mike Zaffetti ’07 accepted a full-time software engineering position as FactSet Research Systems, a financial software company out of Norwalk that develops industry leading analytic and data integration tools for financial professionals. After four years with the company he manages a small team responsible for one of FactSet’s major products.
“The NASA project greatly reinforced for me what dedication and perseverance really can accomplish. Cliché perhaps, but the NASA project was an incredible exemplification of this fact. Fairfield forged its way to NASA on a path usually designated to the likes of the Ivy League. We didn’t just make it there either, we made a real splash while there.” The feedback he and the group received at the time from NASA was “all-around impressed,” he went on, “that some small university from Connecticut could outshine even the Microgravity University regulars.”
He added, “The staff at Fairfield was by far the greatest factor in my success there and since. I speak in particular of Dr. (Jack) Beal, (professor of physics and computer engineering), Dr. (Evangelos) Hadjimichael, then dean of the School of Engineering, Dr. (David) Winn, (professor of physics), and Dr. (Leslie) Schaffer, (former professor of physics).”
Jessica Kurose’07 worked on the NASA project during her final year as an undergrad at Fairfield. After graduation, she wasn’t quite sure what direction she wanted to go in and in the meantime started working at an animal hospital and pursued some side projects. She is now a manager at Strawberry Hill Animal Hospital and A Cat’s Place in Norwalk, Conn., and has started up a web design and development company with friends.
“Though I’m not doing anything related to the NASA project it definitely had an impact on me,” she said. “Working as part of a group on a stressful, time sensitive project is always a good learning experience. Also, traveling down to NASA, working in their facilities and flying in their microgravity plane is something I will never forget.”
Stupak said that he was proud with what he and his group accomplished for Fairfield.
“We were the first group from Fairfield to ever apply for this program. Our proposal was selected from among all those submitted, many from other universities with experience and prior success in the program. There was little margin for error but we were able to pull it off.”
Hermalyn said that while this project had several interesting and important applications, no direct implementations have developed from the work to his knowledge. But, he added, Fairfield could still take the project forward if someone picked up the thread of the research.
“I am still hopeful that some ambitious students at Fairfield will step up to finish what we started.”