Grad Student Profile: Meet Victoria Arias

2/27/2020 5:26:41 PM Amanda Maher

Victoria Arias.
Victoria Arias.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of human space exploration, as well as the beauty and mystery of deep space… After learning so much about what it took for humans to land on the moon and what it’s going to take for us to one day inhabit the Moon, Mars and beyond I thought, ‘I need to be a part of this.’” Victoria Arias aspires to become an astronaut, and she is pursuing a PhD in MechSE as part of her quest to fulfill the requirements of that monumental job description.

One of two Sloan Scholarship recipients in the MechSE department this year, Victoria has an incredible academic history rooted in research. She began at the University of California, Merced, initially studying chemistry with the hope of becoming a pharmacist. After a semester, she decided that pharmacy did not offer her what she wanted out of life. She then learned about an opportunity for a three-year undergraduate fellowship program in mathematics, which exposed her to coding and mathematical modeling. 

Shortly after, Victoria participated in a research experience at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She developed a tool in MATLAB that is capable of numerically solving the partial differential Poisson’s equation. She published her first scientific article from the work she did on this project.

With a goal of working in an actual lab setting, Victoria participated in a NASA-funded fellowship program at UC Merced. Working on nanofabrication of composites, her focus was growing nanotubes on carbon fibers for fuel cell applications.

Shortly thereafter, Victoria earned a position as an intern at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. She conducted both computation and experimental work during her time there, working on simulations of the neutron absorption radiation shielding properties of different materials. The materials she studied have the potential to be used as protection for astronauts in future missions to Mars or deep space. 

Victoria met legendary physicist and mathematician Katherine G. Johnson.
Victoria met legendary physicist and mathematician Katherine G. Johnson.
NASA proved to be an incredible and supportive environment for her. She appreciated the mentorship and collaborative atmosphere the research center offered. What once seemed like a lofty and distant dream was becoming a reality for Victoria because of her scientific determination. She was inspired by the people around her, and she said the simple act of going to work each day filled her with excitement and purpose.

Victoria spent more than a year in her internship before deciding to pursue a PhD. She applied to many programs for nuclear engineering and materials engineering, but only two for mechanical engineering. After visiting Illinois, Victoria decided MechSE offered the best opportunities for her. Upon arrival, she found that she was right, and has since become an active member of GraMS, the graduate MechSE student organization.   

Her academic career has truly come full circle, as her graduate project involves computational chemistry as well as micromechanics. She will simulate the chemistry and micromechanics of reacting flows for hypersonic applications. Working with Professors Kelly Stephani and Harley Johnson, Victoria hopes to incorporate concepts from her work at NASA into her doctoral projects and even pursue future internships with NASA or other organizations to continue her passion for space exploration.