So you are interested in joining the LGST Lab, huh? Let’s figure out first if we are a good fit for you. Explore our research projects, read our papers, check for open positions, and think about how we can support your academic and professional goals, and how those fit in the focus areas of the lab. Keep reading for further details!
Image: The Secret of Monkey Island
What type of students are we looking for?
We seek students interested in developing the next generation of space systems, particularly for those applications that involve fluids subject to low-gravity conditions. Our lab is currently expanding to new fields and many new ideas are just starting to be explored. Don’t be surprised if we soon get involved in cryogenic propellant storage, deployable structures, or micro/millifluidics (a domain that shares many characteristics with the field of low-gravity fluid mechanics). All these fall within the scope of the Low-Gravity Science and Technology Lab.
Self-starters and motivated researchers
Our lab aims to become a global reference in low-gravity research and, therefore, home to a large number of outstanding researchers. The expectation is that new Ph.D. students have learned to work independently and are strongly motivated by the broad research areas that the lab is engaged in.
We are a research team where a group of dedicated individuals works very closely together to solve challenging problems. Researchers are therefore expected to share their broad set of experiences in a professional manner and work well in a team. Ph.D. students soon adopt a leadership role, coordinating master’s and undergraduate students and taking ownership of their own research.
Space systems design background
Most new members should already have had some project-based space systems design courses and should be familiar with the life cycle of a space project. This includes basic knowledge of the most fundamental space engineering fields (e.g. orbital mechanics, attitude control, thermal control, propulsion, etc) and some experience with hardware development. Given the focus of the lab, relevant exposure to gravity-related research will be positively valued.
Applied mathematics, applied physics, and fluid mechanics background
Much of what we do is related to the management of multiphase flows in microgravity. The absence of buoyancy results in surface-tension-dominated flows, which exhibit some challenging (yet, beautiful) mathematical complexity (see e.g. Myshkis’ Low-Gravity Fluid Mechanics). In addition, the new fluid management methods that we are exploring rely on non-trivial electromagnetic and acoustic actuation mechanisms that require careful study. A strong background in applied mathematics, applied physics, and fluid mechanics will therefore be necessary to join many of the projects in the lab. Some experimental experience will prove useful as well.
This is not a comprehensive list: if your background does not match this technical profile but you still think that your experience is (or will be) relevant to our lab, please don’t hesitate to reach out!
Frequently Asked Questions
How often do students get to meet you?
As much as they need to. We currently have bi-weekly 45-minute individual research meetings, saving the weeks in-between to meet as a group. Particular projects may involve additional meetings scheduled during the week but, in any case, I’m available in my office/email/Slack most of the time. I don’t micro-manage my students and I expect them to take ownership of their work.
How many students do you plan to take on each year?
The answer to this question depends a lot on how strong a fit the Ph.D. applicants are, how much funding is available (including student-earned fellowships), how many students are graduating, etc. My current goal is to hire 1-2 PhD students per year until we reach a total of 5-6 students.
What are my chances of joining your lab?
Each year many students with diverse backgrounds apply to the LGST Lab. However, only a small number are selected. The selection process is very challenging and it takes a while to find the right fit between the student’s educational interests and the work the lab is engaged in. In case of doubt, send your application!
Besides strong academics, what else are you looking for?
I always try to evaluate each application as a whole. The grades are very important, but have you shown the ability to engage and lead research, not just done well taking course exams? Have you interned in industry or research labs? Do you have good technical communication skills as shown in paper writing, proposal writing, or giving presentations? Do you have strong leadership potential? Are you rigorous with your work, curious, and creative? Have you done your research on the LGST Lab projects? Do you show passion for our focus areas? All these questions are as important as your grades.
You mention strong mathematics, physics, and fluid mechanics background above. How critical is this?
It depends a lot on the profile required by a given project. Sometimes most of the theory and computational tools are already developed, and the work focuses on designing, building, and testing a microgravity experiment or technology demonstrator. Other times we really need to focus on the theoretical and computational aspects. In general, a good balance between analytical, numerical, and experimental skills is desired: you cannot come up with good engineering solutions if the fundamentals are not crystal clear, but you also need to know how to bring those solutions to reality. This is another reason why teamwork is so important for the success of our projects: by working together, we combine our skills.
Do students have a work-life balance in your lab?
This is an important question. You are expected to take ownership of your research and behave in a professional, responsible way, and that will sometimes stretch your time management skills. With that being said, having fun, being bored from time to time, and taking some time off is essential for everyone (including myself!). Even though many of us are in academia because we love doing research, it is important to remember that you cannot love (or be creative at) what you do if you don’t have a healthy work-life balance.
I do try to make sure the students are realistic with their expectations and goals during the first few semesters to prevent the (sadly) famous burnout. However, it is also my goal to gently push you to learn new skills. You should be pursuing a Ph.D. because you want to grow as a researcher. Just like in sports, you don’t get better at something by coasting in your comfort zone. As my former advisor, Dr. Hanspeter Schaub, used to say, the Ph.D. program is a marathon, not a sprint.
If I join your lab, what would be my dissertation topic?
Even though I may support you as a GRA working on an externally funded project, that work does not necessarily have to be your dissertation topic. It involves, however, certain minimum obligations that must be satisfied (e.g. software development, technical reports, journal and conference papers, etc). The rest of the time is yours to explore your own research ideas. I will work closely with you to help you develop a doctoral research direction over your first 1-2 years. As a Ph.D. you should be able to develop and lead your research projects. This is just as important as acquiring technical skills.
Do I need to know in advance exactly what I want to do for my dissertation?
No, that is not required. I may ask this question to gauge where your current thoughts are on this topic. However, I am also fully aware that your research interests will evolve as you take graduate courses and dig into a research direction. I do expect the research topic to be defined within 1-2 years.
How many papers should I publish to get my PhD?
Quality is more important than quantity: we publish when we have something to say, and we keep working until that happens. However, scientific writing is an essential part of your education that you must master by the end of your PhD, so it is important that you go over the publication process as much as possible. You should plan your research so that it potentially leads to several scientific contributions, and one of my responsibilities as your advisor is to help you with this while you grow as a researcher. Usually, students write around 3-5 journal articles during their PhD.
Only a peer-reviewed article is considered a “paper” at the LGST Lab. Conference proceedings are great for preliminary results, ongoing projects, or just networking, but are not considered a paper. With that being said, I expect my students to participate in several conferences while they progress toward their PhD so that they eventually build their own professional network.
All this sounds very academic. Does it make sense to do a PhD if I want to pursue a career in the industry?
According to the NSF-NCSES 2019 Survey of Doctorate Recipients, 68% of US-trained Science, Engineering, and Health doctorate holders working in R&D in the US do so in the business or industry sector. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. A PhD in engineering will not only make you an expert in your field of research, but also train you to think in a very particular way to solve complex problems in a timely manner. You will need to understand such problems, break them down into a well-organized set of tasks, and choose the best solution strategy while balancing divergent driving factors. As engineers, the concept of “optimality” is more often linked to the most practical rather than the most scientifically accurate solution.
The focus of the LGST lab is currently on low-gravity fluid mechanics, which finds application in spacecraft propulsion, in-situ resource utilization, thermal management, environmental control, life support, or microgravity experimentation, among others. More generally, by the end of the program, you should be able to contribute to the development of any kind of space system. If you want to work on these problems, pursuing a PhD with us will be a good use of your time.
Should I have my own funding?
No, but it is highly recommended. My ability to hire new students is limited by the funding provided by external projects, so I may eventually face the uncomfortable situation of not being able to hire you even if you are a good fit for the lab. To prevent this scenario, I always work with my students on their PhD fellowship applications to NASA FINESST or NSTGRO, NSF GRFP, or the other programs listed here and here. This is an exercise that teaches you how to write a proposal, which is an invaluable skill for any researcher (both in industry and academia). Should you land any of these, you will have full freedom to define your own research without (necessarily) devoting time to ongoing lab projects.
I am an international student. Should I apply?
Yes. Even though international students attending graduate school in the US cannot work in ITAR or Export-Controlled projects (with a few exceptions), there is still a lot to do, particularly in fundamental research. The trick is finding funding for you. Many programs are open only to US citizens, so coming in with your own fellowship will really help you focus on your own ideas without devoting time to other projects or working as a TA. In my case, I was able to fund my PhD thanks to Spanish fellowships from the La Caixa and Rafael del Pino foundations. Each country has its own programs, and you should look for them. Being a foreign national myself, I’m happy to help you navigate the system!
How to apply
If you are interested in joining the LGST Lab, please email me a short research statement and a copy of your CV. Every prospective student will eventually have to submit a formal application to the general Georgia Tech graduate studies page following the process described on the Georgia Tech School of Aerospace Engineering prospective M.Sc. and Ph.D. pages.