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MABE’s McDonald, Three Others in College Win NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Aerospace engineering major Spencer McDonald is one of four seniors from the Tickle College of Engineering to be selected for the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program (GRFP) award.

In the fall, McDonald will begin his graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he’ll be investigating autonomous and secure aerial platforms using adaptation and machine-learning.

“We’re very proud of our students and the work that they do,” said Dean Janis Terpenny, the Wayne T. Davis Dean’s Chair. “These selections reflect well upon them, their faculty mentors, and the many long hours they work together toward educational success and on important research. The diversity of disciplines represented in this year’s winners also underscores the commitment our entire college has toward student success.”

McDonald said that he appreciated the recognition, but was quick to praise those at UT who had helped him get to this point.

“This selection will give me the flexibility to explore topics I find most intriguing and impactful as I begin my graduate career at MIT next year,” McDonald said. “I would like to give special thanks to my research advisor, Assistant Professor Zhenbo Wang. Without his direction and support, many of my recent accomplishments would not have been possible. I would also like to thank Eric Wade (former MABE faculty) for giving me my first research position and the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships at UT for helping review my application materials”

In addition to providing a great education and having supportive professors, the engagement opportunities and connections at UT helped prepare McDonald for graduate school and his future engineering career.

“The number of different clubs and avenues available at UT was overwhelming, and all the activities I participated in helped prepare me and shape my future endeavors,” McDonald said. “I also met people through various networking events who were able to help me secure opportunities that, otherwise, I may never have had.”

McDonald, a Knoxville native, has always had a love for aviation. Some proof of this includes beginning flight lessons at age 13, soloing a plane on his 16th birthday, and earning his private pilot’s license at age 17.

His goal in life is to earn every type of flying certificate there is. He earned his seaplane pilot’s license last year and this summer plans to obtain his instrument rating.

McDonald wing walking last summer.

While interning at Boeing last summer, McDonald took his love for aviation to a new level when he went wing walking.

“The experience was simultaneously the coolest and scariest thing I have ever done in my whole life,” McDonald said.

After completing graduate school, he plans to enter the aerospace industry so he can accomplish his three lifelong goals.

“I want to ensure that future autonomous systems are designed safely, become a political and social advocate for aerospace technologies across the globe, and inspire youth with the wonders of aerospace to perpetuate innovative momentum,” McDonald said. “My dream job is to become a CTO of a major aerospace company so I can make impactful decisions that would determine the future of the aerospace industry.”

In addition to McDonald, Zachary Jerome (civil), Yaw Mensah (electrical), and Alec Yen (electrical) were chosen for the GRFP awards and will receive a $34,000 annual stipend for three years, $12,000 toward tuition and fees, and increased chances to take part in international research as well as other benefits as they begin their graduate studies in the fall. Jackson Wilt (aerospace) received an Honorable Mention from the program.

During selection, each student’s individual work is reviewed to determine if their ideas can advance society, secure the nation, or improve lives. It is extremely important for program applicants to have had measurable research experience at the undergraduate level—something the college and its faculty considers vital for graduate school preparation.

“Our faculty take active interest in having undergraduate students in their research groups, and it’s something they take pride in being able to do,” said Terpenny. “They want their students to succeed, not just as reflection of their success as a mentor, but because they are acutely aware of how important it is to help our students find their life’s passion, and as an engineer, make a difference in the world.”

GRFP began in 1952, making it the oldest fellowship program in the nation devoted to supporting outstanding graduate students in STEM disciplines. Participants have gone on to become Nobel Laureates, government leaders, or titans of industry, including Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Video footage of McDonald’s wing walking can be seen on his You Tube channel.