Mechanical engineering graduate student Seth Thompson turns on his webcam for our virtual interview. As he comes into focus, I see a crib tucked neatly behind his at-home office. Seth has a 3-week-old baby boy in the house – surprising news as he never misses a beat in his communication with me.
Finding mechanical engineering
I originally met Seth when I was researching how to promote engineering to high school students, hoping a current Ph.D. candidate could lend some additional insight.
“I came from a graduating class of 20, so there weren’t a lot of opportunities to learn about engineering,” Thompson said. “But I’ve always been interested in learning how things work, and mechanical engineering seemed widely applicable. I just assumed it would mean I would end up in the automotive world.”
Mechanical engineering isn’t all cars and mechanics. It’s the idea of being given a problem and using every tool and piece of knowledge at your disposal to solve it. You can pursue just about any career field you can think of: aerospace, biomedical, manufacturing, engines, climate change – you name it, and there’s a guaranteed need for curious problem solvers.
Coming to CSU
Seth’s understanding of mechanical engineering began to evolve when he was taking courses at community college and overheard students talking about their plans to move to CSU. Once Seth heard whisperings of projects he could become involved with, he decided to apply.
The projects sounded fascinating – they were hands on and challenging and ignited his innate curiosity of how things work. Learn about machining in “Introduction to Manufacturing”; build a small robot in “Mechatronics”; see the many applications of lasers; and if you have enough interest, you may even join a research project as an undergrad – an opportunity that can be hard to come by at universities.
As an undergraduate student interested in plasma technology, Seth began to volunteer in the Electric Propulsion and Plasma Engineering Laboratory. It wasn’t long in the lab before aerospace engineering became Seth’s path. His volunteer efforts led to a paid position by the summer of his junior year, then into his master’s research, and now work on his Ph.D.
Research for exploration
Now in his fourth year of research, Seth focuses on components of plasma-based electric propulsion technologies, namely hall and ion thrusters used on satellites and potential high-power re-supply missions to Mars. Think of it like this: when gas is excited, it becomes plasma, essentially a soup of electrons and ions, which can be accelerated by electric fields to produce thrust with low propellant usage. This type of propulsion technology significantly decreases the amount of propellant needed for a given space mission, and as a result, allows spacecraft to stay functional for a longer period of time. Scaling up this technology for larger spacecraft enables more ambitious space missions and can even help foster innovation in a variety of other fields.
Plasma thrusters became popular in the late ‘90s when telecom exploded with a demand to keep satellites in specific areas in space. Twenty years later, the technology continues to evolve, with companies such as SpaceX creating cost-effective satellite constellations that play a role in internet, communications coverage, and military defense.
Breakthroughs in these technologies will also have a ripple effect beyond aerospace in fields such as advanced manufacturing and power generation. Seth’s experience with this technology has yielded plenty of job offers throughout graduate school.
“The constant interaction of research and industry throughout the curriculum is what sets CSU apart,” Thompson said. “I really enjoy the large spectrum in concepts and technologies I get to work on.”
Seth spends research days working with plasmas and specialized electronics and diagnostics that are more closely related to physics than engineering. Other days he spends his time machining and manufacturing for his experiments, which is highly mechanical. As part of his Graduate Teaching Assistantship, he also teaches concepts related to thermal sciences, heat and mass transfer, and fluid dynamics.
“The variability ensures that I never bore with one topic or another and continues to refine my engineering skillset,” Thompson said.
After graduation, Seth plans to work for a small research company that is highly involved with the plasma propulsion and diagnostic research efforts at CSU. The company works on government and commercial contracts performing research on new technologies identified as crucial to NASA, DoD, and DOE.
Advice to students
Seth glances over at his baby then looks back at me.
“There is so much pressure on our youth to have it all figured out and know what they want to do,” he said.
Seth encourages students to take their time to explore possibilities, recommending they become involved in research and check out the many technologies, projects, and labs at CSU.
“Just go out and try – you will find what interests you! You may hate materials classes but love thermodynamics. That’s okay, just keep exploring different aspects of the engineering process – you will learn so much and have a lot of fun along the way.”
How does Seth balance studies, research, teaching, and fatherhood?
“Having a child adds a lot of clarity and perspective,” he said. “Your important to-do-lists become shorter. Narrowing my focus has actually increased my efficiency while working. Also, everyone at CSU has been so supportive. It’s made things much easier.”