• Sheila Murthy, Associates-funded SURF Student
    Sheila Murthy, Associates-funded SURF Student

Yes, It's Rocket Science: Adventures in Summer Research

An Interview with Caltech Associates SURF Student: Sheila Murthy, Class of 2017

Sheila Murthy, class of 2017, was awarded a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), funded by the Caltech Associates. We met with her to find out what she is most excited about as she begins her research experience and what brought her to Caltech. 

Name: Sheila Murthy, class of 2017
Hometown: Redmond, WA 
Major: Mechanical Engineering


Why did you choose Caltech?

When I was about 13 years old, my dad recorded NOVA documentaries about astronomy. We would watch them together, and I noticed that the closing credits would always reference Caltech and JPL. After I asked him what this was, my dad explained that JPL was one of NASA's sites and that its parent institution was Caltech. He told me that JPL was the only NASA center founded by a school, so after confirming that attending Caltech would enable me to work at JPL, my plan was to apply and hopefully get accepted.

Having grown up in Redmond, I knew that many of my friends' parents worked for companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Boeing, so I was also exposed to big tech companies and smaller software start-ups. This also piqued my interest in working in science and technology. Originally I wanted to study astrophysics, so I first came to Caltech for a college visit in my junior year of high school. During that time I met a graduate student who I kept in contact with, and he helped me get a summer internship at JPL just before my senior year. I absolutely loved the experience, and it solidified my interest in Caltech as my top school choice!


What do you enjoy most about being a student at Caltech?

During the first two years as an undergraduate, most classes are part of the core curriculum, and they are very technical. All majors complete most of the same classes. This year, as a junior, I got to branch out and try some applied, practical, and specialized subjects in engineering. I was part of the FSAE racing team. We built a racecar from scratch, and this was the first year that Caltech got to participate in a competition, as we passed a lot of the engineering requirements. It was so much fun to be part of team and see the theory I had been learning about in class being applied.

I also really enjoyed an introductory aerospace class—we did everything from learn about guidance, navigation, and control systems to actually work on the AAReST telescopeone of the few JPL telescopes managed by Caltech. We got to work in the dedicated Space Structures Lab with Dr. Pellegrino, and as part of the class, we worked on different components of the telescope. I was focused on the mirror-box system and ran vibration testing and set up optical testing procedures. I couldn't have done this without learning the theory in the previous years, and it was thrilling to see the theory come to life!

At Caltech, everyone is research oriented. We have the luxury as students that we can ask nearly any faculty member to do a research project and that faculty member will work with us. This is where the student-to-faculty ratio really pays off.

I am also invigorated by Caltech's collaboration policy. As a freshman, we all take all the same classes—basic chemistry, physics, and biology—and this forces us to work together. Caltech is unique in that it encourages us to collaborate on problem sets, not copying but teaching and working through process and problems together with our peers. Some sets are nearly impossible to complete alone, and it takes the approach of collective understanding to complete an assignment.


Who are you working with for your SURF, and what is your project focused on?

I am part the robotics and mobility group at JPL, within a program called the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) study, which is an incubator for rapid prototyping and feasibility studies on potential missions. My specific SURF project is called Transformers, in which I and another intern are trying to design a series of solar reflectors that could be mounted along the rim of Shackleton crater, located at the south pole of the moon. These reflectors would redirect any sunlight that hits them at the moon's azimuth, directly into the inside of the crater, and thereby provide some indefinite energy source to lunar rovers and stations that are inside the crater, seeking to explore the crater's icy regolith. Currently, the main constraint with any lunar mission is that we do not have a sustainable energy source. Harnessing solar power at this location could yield fascinating advancements in human understanding of the moon's geological composition. An unlimited energy source would allow us to develop lunar stations within a crater that is normally engulfed in darkness, which I think is pretty cool!

My work, in particular, focuses on the deployment mechanisms that mount and orient these reflectors accurately. It is a tough job, considering that each reflector has at least a 35-meter diameter and is 400 meters high! This week I am designing a 1:20 scale model of the reflector using Mylar and adding rigidisors on the base of the reflectors. This project is in phase two of NIAC, which means there are still a lot of open questions and we have the freedom to explore. I am working with graduate student mentors and enjoy the opportunities to exchange ideas with them. Much of the work is experimental, and we are eliminating ideas as fast as possible. Despite the uncertainty, it is a fun and dynamic working environment because we can think outside the box and be very creative with rapid prototyping. 


What most excites you about your SURF?

Like at at Caltech, the opportunity to talk about projects and collaborate with team members has been really motivating. I feel fortunate to be working in a rich, active environment, surrounded by so many smart people. One of the most rewarding aspects of our work is talking to people about what we are working on and coming up with new and fresh ideas.


If you could have a superpower, what would you choose and why?

Not sure if this is a superpower, but I would love to go into space or fly anywhere without confinements or the need for a spacesuit. Maybe I could use this power to help connect people.


What do you hope to do when you graduate?

I am still deciding between graduate school and industry. JPL, SpaceX, or Boeing could all be great companies to work for, so I will probably apply to both schools and jobs and see what offers I receive. However, I look forward to pursuing engineering. In the future, I would consider pursuing an executive MBA to work on the business side of things. I like to see how products can manifest themselves for the public to use, and it would be rewarding to understand the big picture and how to effectively help people on a global scale.


Closing sentiments?

The generosity of the Caltech Associates has allowed me to spend a summer at JPL and explore a field of engineering among world-renowned, literal rocket scientists. How cool is that? Truly, the endowment the Associates provides to curious young intellectuals is a gift, and one I will be passing along when I am at an age to give back to students who so desperately want to learn and contribute to the world around them.