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Spotlight on Students: Frances Zhu

  • Affiliation: MAE
  • Hometown: Kansas City, KS

Frances “Frankie” Zhu is used to having her work scrutinized by a PI (Principal Investigator). She is currently a Ph.D. student in the lab of Mason Peck, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in Cornell’s Sibley School. But before that, she grew up in a house that had not one but TWO PIs. “I grew up in Boston, but then we moved to Kansas City,” says Zhu. “Moving gave both of my parents the chance to be Principal Investigators—so I grew up around labs and research all the time.”

Even with the constant exposure to research as a child and teenager, Zhu was not sure she wanted to pursue the same path herself. But then during her final year of high school she took a Senior Research Class. “It was great,” says Zhu during a recent phone call from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “I got to experience the whole process from idea to experimental design to the actual testing of the idea. It changed the path I was on.”

The idea Zhu tested was for an airfoil with a dimpled leading edge. She got to build it and then test it in a wind tunnel. With that experience under her belt, Zhu came to Cornell and majored in mechanical engineering. In her sophomore year she joined the Violet Satellite Student Project Team and became leader of the Attitude Controls and Sensing Team. “It was also during sophomore year that I met Mason Peck and he strongly suggested that I would need a graduate degree to pursue the path I wanted to pursue,” says Zhu.

Zhu took Peck’s advice. She earned her undergraduate mechanical engineering degree from Cornell and is now in the third year of her Ph.D. studies. She holds a NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship, which is why Zhu was calling from California rather than sitting in an Ithaca coffee shop for an interview. One of the perks of the Space Technology Research Fellowship is that Zhu gets to spend ten weeks of each year at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

During this most recent time in California, Zhu was testing an early prototype of a passive docking system based on magnetic flux pinning. The process, which relies on noncontacting interactions between superconductors and magnets, could obviate the need for active controllers in various interactions between spacecraft. To test the prototype, Zhu got to ride in what is affectionately known as the Vomit Comet. Since it is hard to create zero-gravity on Earth, NASA and others use parabolic flights on fixed-wing aircraft to create up to 25 seconds of weightlessness per parabola—and, frequently, feelings of nausea in the researchers.

“We got tons of video of the interface working,” says Zhu. “And I managed to hold it together until after the experiment was complete.” Now that Zhu has tested the technology, she wants to characterize the dynamics and create a predictive model to better understand what is going on and how to use it most effectively. A possible use of magnetic flux pinning includes the assembly and reconfiguration of modular space structures and spacecraft formations. Another possible use could be in the prevention of contamination during the collection of samples from planets, moons, and asteroids. The collection unit could be gathered and returned to Earth or an orbiting spacecraft without mechanical contact.

Zhu is hoping to go back to the JPL for further testing in November and to graduate with her Ph.D. in two or three years. When she is not building a predictive model of flux pinning, Zhu enjoys rock climbing and hiking, both in Upstate New York and in Southern California. “Rock climbing is a lot like the challenges we tackle in engineering,” says Zhu. “Each route is a puzzle and you need to think it through and be flexible when things don’t work.”

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