by Juliana Palomino
On January 5th, 2018, University of Kentucky graduate student Damien Lawhorn awoke to an email that would change the course of his future.
Over the past three months, Damien had labored tirelessly on a research proposal for a fellowship with NASA Kentucky, a state grant consortium that partners with NASA to further statewide research and educational development. Due to the selective nature of the fellowship, Damien knew it would be a profound honor to be one of the few accepted.
So, even at 6 a.m., you can understand his reaction upon reading the good news.
“I jumped out of bed because I was so excited. As someone who’s always been interested in aviation and space system design, I’m really happy to have the opportunity to work in collaboration with NASA,” says Damien.
The one-year fellowship will fund Damien’s research on hybrid electric aircraft. These types of motors use both an electric and jet propellant, with each being used according to the amount of thrust the craft may need in a given moment, such as while taking off or landing. Damien seeks to advance knowledge in this area by running simulations of the power transfer between motors in various situations, including in aircraft where solar panels provide all electric energy.
Damien’s work during his first year of graduate school has cultivated his interest in these areas. His research has focused on power electronics, which are electronics that convert electricity between the two main currents AC (Alternating Current) and DC (Direct Current). Damien is working to apply that electrical power supply to the throttle of an electric motor to help it communicate speed most efficiently. Along with team members, he submitted a paper to the International Conference on Renewable Energy Research and Applications (ICRERA) detailing their findings on how to get the motor to run above its rated speed. For Damien, the NASA fellowship represents an amalgam of many of his research interests.
What academic journey has led Damien to this point? Damien graduated from UK in May 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Damien had begun research with Professor and L. Stanley Pigman Chair in Power Dan M. Ionel during his senior year, and, though he received a few job offers, he ultimately decided to stay at UK to pursue a master’s degree. He received funding for his entire first year from UK alumnus and generous donor Stanley Pigman, who also funded the computing and engineering labs in which Damien works. Damien remembers meeting Mr. Pigman several times, showing him his work in the lab, but the generous gift took him completely by surprise.
“I was going into graduate school not sure how I was going to pay for it, and I was so grateful to receive funding," Damien remembers.
For Damien, research has made all the difference. It shaped his interests during his time as an undergraduate, led him to graduate school, and brought him exclusive and thrilling opportunities.
“I’m not going to say that research isn’t a lot of hard work, because it is. But if you’re really interested in what your field truly is, then that’s the place you need to be,” says Damien.