Having honed in on his passions for physics, science and engineering since his junior year in high school, Chukwuka Mbagwu, Ph.D. is now set to become a rocket scientist. In 2007, he left his home in Southern California to begin his undergraduate studies at MIT. Ten years, three aerospace engineering degrees and a systems engineer position later, he’s ready to move westward once again and focus on his work with hypersonic vehicles.
When applying for graduate programs during his first year out of undergrad, Chuky saw U-M as the perfect balance between a top-notch institution, strong student support system and set of opportunities to explore the aerospace side of his interests. It was a great fit with the satellite experience he had as an undergrad, and the federal grants available for his education clinched the deal.
During his time at U-M, his research focused on developing computational modeling for combustion issues in hypersonic vehicles, specifically ramjets and scramjets. He used in-house and commercial software to model flame stability for the purpose of making planes faster. These applications are used primarily by the military in missile launches or lower orbit vehicles.
He explains, “I love the physics behind the problem I’m working on. These vehicles cannot launch from the ground, and the physics of flying at such high speed requires a certain gas, pressure and temperature combination to combust and create more thrust. That’s the core of how this technology works.”
Outside of his research and studies, Chuky tried out, and landed on, a number of extracurriculars and jobs at U-M. For starters, he sat in on Rackham Student Government’s (RSG) open meetings during his first year and instantly noticed how cohesive and welcoming the leadership team was. “They talked about stuff beyond them and beyond their departments, providing programs for everyone to better their experience.”
After taking on increasingly central roles in the organization, he served as president of RSG for two years. His initiatives largely centered on campus issues like services for students with disabilities, sustainability and parking availability. He says, “RSG wants to be cognitive of all experiences and support all students, all demographics, from students of color, disabled students, international students and more. We want to be a support system for everyone.”
He also served as a graduate student instructor for several years, and earned the College of Engineering’s Richard and Eleanor Towner Prize for Outstanding GSIs. He says of his experience as a teacher: “It made me think about what that would look like in the future. I haven’t ruled out academia down the road.”
That’s not all. In his spare time, he played intramural sports — softball, basketball and flag football — with a cohort from the aerospace department. He also flew with the Michigan Aviators club and did fly-outs to different destinations around Michigan and Ohio.
As he crosses the finish line, Chuky thinks about what’s ahead of him: “There is a lot of industry in the western part of the country, and I’d like to live closer to my family in California… I have a lot of skills that are transferable, and I want to use what I’ve learned and done.”
Michigan Aerospace Engineering