Alka Panda arrived at Virginia Tech filled with high expectations for herself, and a determination to make her presence known. Four years later, she has left her mark through her stellar academic record and a diverse research portfolio, and has built a legacy through the establishment of two new student organizations.

Panda is graduating this spring with a bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering and has been named this year’s Outstanding Senior in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering.

“Alka is a very high-performer in her classes and is strongly motivated in the classroom,” said assistant professor Christine Gilbert, who directed Panda in a portion of her undergraduate research. “Regardless of where Alka ends up, I know she will actively engage in her community and work toward her goals and the goals of her research group or company. She will continue to take advantage of every opportunity to learn new things and increase her skill set.” 

Panda’s interest in engineering was sparked as a young child in Odisha, India, while visiting her father, a mechanical engineer, at work. He’d suit her up in protective gear, take her down to the workshop floor, and explain how each machine worked and the process of how things were made. As a seventh grader, she narrowed her focus to aerospace engineering when she was gifted the autobiography of former Indian president and aerospace engineer A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, titled “Wings of Fire.” She aspired to someday work for the Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, the equivalent of NASA in India.

Finding the right fit

Panda spent a year at a university in India, but found it was not the right school for her and yearned to study abroad. She began to research schools and was drawn to the small-town feel of Blacksburg and the highly ranked engineering programs at Virginia Tech. 

Virginia Tech engineering faculty noticed early on that Panda was a talented, driven, and truly exceptional student who asked thoughtful, in-depth questions during lectures. Bright and motivated with an inherent curiosity, she quickly became one of the top-performing undergraduate students in the aerospace and ocean engineering program.

Panda jumped whole-heartedly into collegiate life, joining student groups, engaging in service activities, and exploring opportunities for undergraduate research. At her first Gobblerfest, she eagerly signed up to participate with a number of teams and clubs, including the Design, Build, Fly and Formula SAE teams. In India, Panda did not have experience with hands-on practical design clubs, such as a robotics team, that are available to many U.S. high school students. She struggled to find the right club that both excited her and provided the in-depth learning opportunities she craved.

While she was living in the Hypatia living-learning community in Lee Hall, Panda made the fortuitous decision to join a team entering NASA’s Micro-G NExT challenge. The freshmen-only team designed an asteroid surface sampling device that collected two samples without cross-contamination, and they were selected by NASA to travel to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to present their design and have their device tested at the center’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab.

This positive experience with the Micro-G NExT team left the members wanting to pay it forward and provide future freshmen with early collegiate design opportunities. Panda and her teammates established the Archimedes Society in the fall of 2017, an organization that currently supports three freshmen-only design teams. Panda continues to serve as the organization’s funding coordinator, managing funds for all three teams in addition to providing technical advice when required. 

Diving into multidisciplinary research

By her sophomore year, Panda’s priorities shifted and she sought out diverse undergraduate research opportunities from across the College of Engineering. While her peers thrived on participating in design teams and competition, she found that independent research work was much more fulfilling for her.  She served as a volunteer researcher in the Socha Lab within the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, collecting quantitative data to analyze biomechanical movements of flying snakes. 

During her junior year, she completed undergraduate research in Gilbert’s Hydroelasticity Lab, analyzing the effects of compression waves through nonlinear, viscoelastic materials. She later spent that summer at the Shandong University-Virginia Tech Lab in Jinan, China, designing and building a synchronized microphone array and gaining skills in synchronization of audio and video data. Through this experience abroad, she came to appreciate the diverse work culture and environments that engineers face.

As a senior, Panda was selected to participate in undergraduate research under associate aerospace and ocean engineering professor K. Todd Lowe at the Advanced Propulsion and Power Lab. As a member of the lab, she conducted research on hyperspectral imaging techniques. It was through her classes and research with Lowe that Panda fell completely in love with propulsion, and cemented for her what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. 

“Alka quickly made herself a valuable member of the team,” said Lowe. “She worked closely with a research scientist and a graduate research assistant to carry out a critical experiment that has validated a unique particle-detection instrument on a full-scale turbofan engine.

“In addition to the analysis and lab work, she has supported the dissemination of our results, particularly through sponsor reports and preparing publications for external release. From my experience, these accomplishments place her among the very best of her peers and among the top-performing undergraduate students with whom I have ever worked.” 

Collectively through these research opportunities, Panda gained experience in the multidisciplinary fields of air-breathing propulsion, shockwave propagation, and biomechanics. “While the technical skills I learned during these experiences were invaluable, I also felt proud and honored that Virginia Tech had an environment that fostered transdisciplinary research and I could participate in it,” said Panda. 

Fueled by the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve)

Panda’s achievements extend beyond the classroom and the research laboratory. During her time at Virginia Tech, she has also felt called to serve and assist incoming students, and share her experience as an international student and a woman in engineering. 

As a freshman, she was paired with a female mentor, Jayda El Hakie '19, through Hypatia. While their mentor-mentee relationship was meant to last only 10 weeks, the connection continued on. Panda found it comforting to have someone who understood the struggles she was facing as an international student, the culture shock, and the difficulties that surround the first semester abroad. 

Panda realized she enjoyed having this kind of relationship and wanted to assist freshmen coming in who were facing similar struggles. She signed up first as a peer mentor and later as a peer leader for the Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, where she mentored aerospace engineering students through their first semester in College of Engineering. 

In order to network with her fellow aerospace engineering students, Panda became an active member of Virginia Tech’s student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the national aerospace engineering honor society Sigma Gamma Tau. In 2019, she became a founding member of the professional development club Society of Women in Aviation and Space Exploration, which supports minorities in the aerospace industry and provides a space for the forty current members to be champions for one another.  

Throughout her four years at Virginia Tech, Panda has made the Dean's List with distinction every semester. She was awarded the Pratt Engineering scholarship in 2018 and the Frederick C. Grant scholarship in 2019, each from the College of Engineering. 

Though the remainder of her senior year in Blacksburg was abruptly cut short due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Panda is making the most of her last few months. Having never participated in a graduation ceremony, she is disappointed that she won’t be able to walk across the stage to receive her diploma or take part in the department’s senior activities. However, her online classes are giving her a sense of normalcy, and she is taking advantage of the spring weather to get in a few last hikes and visits to the Duck Pond and to reflect back on the place she has called home the past four years. 

After graduation, she will depart for Stanford University, where she is enrolled in the master’s program and will later transition to earn her Ph.D. in aerospace and space propulsion. 

“As a Hokie, I have been a part of countless experiences that taught me to thrive in teams, respect differing opinions, and face adversity in various circumstances,” said Panda. “I have met my expectations in my academic career and set newer and higher goals for myself after every achievement. Most of all, I am proud that at Virginia Tech, I received the opportunity to learn something new every day and the prospect of such doesn't scare me, but rather excites me.”

Written By Jama Green