Aerospace engineering student Sammi Rocker has recently been selected as one of Aviation Week’s “Tomorrow’s Technology Leaders: The 20 Twenties” for 2019.

Rocker, along with 19 other students, was identified as one of the top aerospace-bound individuals from an international field of highly qualified candidates. The criteria was based not only on academic performance, but on ability to contribute to a broader community and to communicate the value of their research.

The annual award, sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics, recognizes students earning STEM degrees who are nominated by their universities on the basis of their academic performance, civic contribution, and research or design project. The recipients are invited to attend the 62nd annual Laureates Gala in Washington, D.C., in March, a black-tie event that honors luminaries from across the industry who have designed, engineered and innovated at the highest levels. There, Aviation Week will honor both the veterans who created the legacy of innovation in the aerospace industry and the young people who will carry that torch forward.

“Since her first day as a student, it has been clear that Sammi had the aptitude and drive to be an outstanding aerospace engineer,” said H. Pat Artis, professor of practice at Virginia Tech, who taught her as an undergraduate and was the driving force behind her nomination. “I am looking forward to watching her career as she becomes a leader in aircraft design.”

A 2018 graduate and current graduate student in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, Rocker always knew she had a mind for engineering. The daughter of a biomedical/electrical engineer and mechanical engineer, she describes her younger self as “that child who would just as much take toys apart as build them” simply to see the inner workings of how they operated.

It wasn’t until Rocker’s freshman year at Virginia Tech that she determined exactly which field of engineering was the one for her.

“The intensity of aerospace engineering is exciting,” she explained. “Working on such extreme structural loads at extraordinary speeds and solving problems with real application, rather than those with answers at the back of a textbook, appealed to the experimentalist in me.”  

Rocker quickly rose as a leader at Virginia Tech. During her time as an undergraduate, she held leadership positions for the College of Engineering Dean’s Team, the aerospace and ocean engineering department’s Student Ambassador Program, Virginia Tech’s chapter of Sigma Gamma Tau, and within the Galileo and Hypatia engineering living-learning communities. She has mentored high school students visiting campus and first-year engineering students, and worked with local schools at all grade levels to enthusiastically deliver her message.

“Engineering is fun. It is hard work and the most rewarding thing that I have ever done.”

Her talents and leadership qualities have not gone unnoticed by the aerospace industry. She has held internships the last four summers with industry giants Northrop Grumman, Sikorsky Aircraft, and Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. Based on her flight test experiences with Northrop Grumman and Sikorsky, Rocker was inspired to help found and currently serves as an officer for the Virginia Tech chapter of the Society of Flight Test Engineers.

At the end of her senior year, her hard work in the classroom, innovation and leadership in research, and her industry experiences were recognized when she was named the Outstanding Senior in the aerospace and ocean engineering department and was selected as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Award winner of the Sigma Gamma Tau Undergraduate Award competition. In addition to those honors, her senior capstone team was awarded second place by AIAA in a Hybrid Electric Aircraft Design competition. The international team was made up of 10 students collaborating from both Virginia Tech and Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. Rocker served as team lead.

Her transition to life as a graduate student has been a comfortable one. Rocker was awarded the Martin-Marietta Aircraft Fellowship to support her studies, and she enjoys the teaching and mentoring aspect of her role as a graduate teaching assistant. In both classroom and laboratory settings she has been able to share her knowledge and industry experiences with the next class of undergraduates and act as a liaison between the students and the faculty.

In the Aerospace Structures and Materials Lab, Rocker fabricates nanocomposites for structural health monitoring tests - a grueling process to guarantee reliable carbon nanotube dispersion.
In the Aerospace Structures and Materials Lab, Rocker fabricates nanocomposites for structural health monitoring tests - a grueling process to guarantee reliable carbon nanotube dispersion.

She is immersed in her research under faculty advisor Gary Seidel in the Aerospace Structures and Materials Lab, which focuses on structural health monitoring, or small-scale damage detection in aerospace multifunctional nanocomposites. Of particular interest are polymer matrix composites classified as energetic materials, which are commonly used as solid rocket propellant or explosives.

With safety as a top priority in the manufacturing and handling of these energetic materials, there are concerns about accidental impact and internal fracture. This kind of damage has the potential to compromise the stability of the material during ignition and cause uncontrollable and often catastrophic combustive reactions. Seidel’s team is working to determine new methods of internal damage sensing in energetic materials in real-time.  

Rocker hopes her work will lead to a better understanding of structural health in energetic composites and advance damage detection techniques for use in industry. By improving overall safety and risk prediction, the safe transport of solid rocket propellants would be elevated from a game of chance into a guarantee.

After completion of her degree, Rocker hopes to translate her current research into a career performing diagnostics for flight test teams.

For now, her day-to-day research schedule widely varies from preparing for experiments with extensive literature review, execution of testing along with data acquisition and analysis, and drafting publications to effectively communicate her discoveries. In her own words, “Only one thing remains consistent throughout these activities: I never stop learning.”

Written By Jama Green