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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Chukwuka Mbagwu

As a junior in high school in Southern California, Chuky developed a real interest in physics, science and engineering. The timing was good, since he was shaping up college applications as that interest grew. And that is apparently how a rocket scientist is made. There was help along the way from MIT, his undergraduate institution, and, of course, U-M.

Chuky spent a year working in industry in the DC area before coming to U-M to start his Master’s degree. He shares, “I had a goal of going to grad school but wanted to experience industry too. I thought I would work for 1-2 years and ended up applying to graduate schools in the first year to get it out of my way. I enjoyed my year, but when it came to college visits, U-M had the best funding package, which I am really benefitting from. That is one of the great things here; U-M provides such great support and is a top notch institution.” U-M was a great fit to develop the aerospace side of his interests, balancing the satellite experience he had as an undergrad and while working. The federal grants available at U-M clinched the deal.

It was a transition for Chuky, partly because of U-M’s size and partly because of the sports culture, one he came to embrace quickly. “That first weekend or so that I was here there was a home football game and that was quite an experience. I felt welcomed by the almost universal athletic school spirit and the stature of athletics at U-M. I didn’t know any of this coming in and it was great to experience it.” Academically, coming back to school was an easier transition after having spent just one year in industry, although he admits the stark difference between the rigorous academic world and the 9 to 5 work life.

Chuky is currently a 5th year doctoral candidate in Aerospace Engineering. His research focuses on computational modeling for combustion issues in hypersonic vehicles, specifically ramjets and scramjets. He uses in-house and commercial software to model flame stability for the purpose of making planes faster, applications used primarily by the military in missile launched or lower orbit vehicles. He explains, “I love the physics behind the problem I’m working on. These vehicles can’t launch from the ground and the physics of flying at such high speed requires a certain gas/pressure/temperature combination to combust and create more thrust. That’s the core of how this technology works. I’m trying to determine how to have better flame stability with low pressure regulation and compensate other factors to make that happen.”

As he sees the finish line, Chuky thinks about what’s ahead of him: “I want to continue working on hypersonic vehicles. 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. As a Ph.D. candidate, I have a lot of skills that are transferable. I want to use what I’ve learned and done.”

He was pleasantly surprised to find out how much he enjoyed teaching when he had the chance to serve as a GSI over the last few years. “I truly enjoyed that experience, and it made me think about what that would look like in the future. I haven’t ruled out academia down the road.”

When he gets some spare time, Chuky plays intramural sports (softball, basketball, flag football) with a cohort from the Aerospace department, which has become more social over the years. He’s also a pilot and participates in the Michigan Aviators club, recently re-formed by one of his former students. “We do fly-outs to different destinations, go have lunch somewhere else in Michigan or Ohio and fly back.”

During his second semester at U-M, Chuky got involved in Rackham Student Government (RSG), simply sitting in on the open meetings. “I talked to some of the leadership there. The board was very together, cohesive, and welcoming. They talked about stuff beyond them and beyond their departments, providing programs for everyone to better their experience.” The next semester he ran to be a representative for Physical Sciences and Engineering and has been involved ever since. He is now finishing his second term as the Rackham Student Government president. He says, “By being involved in RSG, I got to meet so many people outside of my lab and participate in diversified programming as well. Student government does a number of things in support of and advocacy for graduate students. The most visible are the social student life events and we get lots of positive feedback on those.”

RSG’s campus advocacy focuses on issues like services for students with disabilities, sustainability, and parking availability. Chuky says, “This is an opportunity for different groups of students to engage. I’d like to see greater representation from all divisions, especially the humanities and arts. I want to determine how we can provide better programming for students in those divisions. We want to better understand the different academic experiences and support students however we can.”

He continues, “We’d like to have a big fundraising push to generate more funds for graduate students. Our funds all come from student fees and we want to make sure student fees are working best for students. Other student government groups have considerably more funds available to them. We want to grow our fundraising so we can provide more services to graduate students.”

He’s pushing for process improvements as well. Last summer, RSG focused on improving their communication process. “We revamped our website, e-mail system, and are being more active on social media to make sure people are aware of us. We want to be as clear as possible about who we are and what we do, getting through the message of who we’re representing and who’s a part of that. We want people to know that RSG offers access to discuss issues. Students can come to us to get things started – with any kind of issues. There are multiple avenues to address needs, but RSG can be a resource. We talk directly to student life, the dean, and others. We can be a strong and well-established voice for an issue that might seem very large and unwieldy for an individual.”

He continues, “We want to provide programing that is specific or inclusive for graduate students. When it comes to events, we are branching out to provide other quieter events, not just bar nights and things like that. We saw positive feedback on those opportunities as well. 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.”

Being so heavily integrated in Rackham Student Government means Chuky collaborates frequently with Rackham staff, an experience he’s thoroughly enjoyed. “Being involved in RSG and working with Rackham staff, I see the value of what Rackham does – the programs, services and funding, – there is so much offered. I am fortunate to be a Rackham Merit Fellowship recipient. The RMF funding has allowed me freedom to explore whatever research I wanted. It has been a big help to me and to my advisor.”