Kai Cui is a recipient of two outstanding graduate awards from the College of Engineering and Applied Science in 2021: the Research Award and the Academic Engagement Award.
Cui filled her college years with experiences galore: completion of a space minor, serving as a teaching assistant, working as a NASA intern, and studying and completing research abroad.
Among the most unique experiences: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that emerged from her work in the Atmospheric Research Lab through an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program grant.
"For three weeks in summer 2019, I lived at Toolik Field Station in the Arctic and ran experiments with a tethered balloon," Cui said. "This was definitely not something I expected to do as an undergraduate student. Since middle school, I have dreamed of going to the Arctic or Antarctica, and it was amazing to actually accomplish that dream."
Cui also found engaging projects closer to home. Her most meaningful academic experience came from completing a senior design capstone project with a team of classmates, she said.
"Our team designed a reconfigurable CubeSat swarm for our client, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory," Cui said. "It was exciting to take all of the knowledge from previous engineering classes and implement them into our design. The project also taught me a lot about teamwork and what real-world problem solving entails. Many parts of our design could not be solved by a simple equation. We had to consult experts, read papers, conduct tests and utilize software to solve these design challenges. Overall, I am proud of the project that my team and I successfully completed."
What is your favorite memory from your time at CU Boulder?
Some of my favorite memories at CU Boulder was studying late into the night with friends at the BOLD Center. Armed with hot tea and snacks, we would work through difficult homework assignments and projects together. There was always a sense of camaraderie and companionship while we all worked towards the same goal. These moments built lifelong friendships that I will take with me after college.
What accomplishment are you most proud of, either academically or personally?
My proudest accomplishment was participating in the Pathways co-op/internship program at NASA Johnson Space Center. Through the program, I was able to work with environmental systems flight controllers for the International Space Station and with thermal vacuum test engineers. During the first all-female spacewalk, I had a chance to shadow a flight controller on-console inside Houston Mission Control. It was a very special moment to be a part of such a historical event even in a small way. While at NASA, I also worked on a variety of human spaceflight projects. One of my long term goals is to help put the first human on Mars, and working at the space center leading human space flight was the first step to accomplishing this goal.
What is your plan for after graduation?
I accepted a job in the Systems Test Group of the Crew and Thermal Systems Division at NASA Johnson Space Center. I will be training to be a test engineer for thermal vacuum tests on spacecraft, spaceflight components and spacesuits.
Tell us about a moment (or moments) when you felt like you hit your stride or felt like you were “officially” an engineer.
I truly felt like an engineer during my thermodynamics class. This was the first time I truly understood how to work through engineering problems. I really enjoyed working through the problems a little bit at a time and learning how to pull numbers from tables and graphs. Up to taking thermodynamics, I was doubtful of my ability as an engineer and was unsure if I could succeed in the field. Through the class, I felt more confident in my ability to work through problems and find solutions to anything that is thrown my way.
What was the biggest challenge for you during your engineering education? What did you learn from it?
During spring 2020, I had a chance to study abroad and take engineering courses at the University of Manchester. However, due to the pandemic, my study abroad program sent us home a few months earlier than expected. Not only was it slightly difficult to return back to the U.S. since so many flights were cancelled, it was also a challenge to keep up with my engineering classes. As we have all dealt with this past year, it took a little while to become accustomed to remote learning. Due to the time difference, I also had remote classes at very odd times throughout the day and night. I learned a lot about flexibility and adaptability during this time which benefited me a lot when taking classes online throughout this past school year. Although I enjoy having everything planned out for the future, I learned to take a step back, and I understand that not everything can be planned out.
What is your biggest piece of advice for incoming engineering students?
For incoming engineering students, it’s OK to not know what you want to study at the beginning of college. When I first started, I chose to study chemical-biological engineering. I quickly realized that it was not the right fit for me, and I switched over to mechanical engineering. I was interested in the hands-on projects and flexibility that mechanical engineering offered. There is always an option to change your major or try something different, especially during the first two years of college.
Is there anything else you want people to know about you and your time at CU Boulder?
I want to thank my family and friends for all their support and encouragement. I am grateful to the mechanical engineering department for helping me work out all the logistics and giving me the flexibility to take on a variety of opportunities. I also want to thank my advisors and professors who have helped me in and outside of my courses. In addition, I really appreciate everything that the BOLD Center, the Norlin Scholars Program, the Engineering Honors Program, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, and the Atmospheric Research Lab have done for me. I cannot be more thankful to everyone that has made these last five years extraordinary and unforgettable.