Student Spotlight: Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith
Major: Engineering/Physics

Aaron Smith likes word problems. And he knows some people may find that weird.

“I enjoy the process of thinking through each new problem, wrestling with the words until they turn into an equation and the satisfaction of finally arriving at the right answer,” he said. “Physics, in a concrete way, teaches you how the world works, how things are moving, and predicts where they’re headed – and that’s just cool.”

But Smith couldn’t always predict where he was headed, despite having a natural curiosity about life.

“When I was 18, I wanted to find a place where I could test myself, but I wasn’t quite ready to pick a major in college,” he said. “I needed somewhere I could grow while trying to identify the direction of my future career. The Marine Corps was a great place for that.”

After his last deployment, Smith moved to the area and resumed his college career. It started a new chapter in his life, one that he was ready to enjoy.

“College of DuPage has been a central part to one of my most successful, fulfilling and enjoyable periods in life,” he said. “When I first arrived, I started in Calculus I, with my last math class six years behind me. As anyone getting back into math will tell you, it’s not easy; math has a tendency to rust over time. Fortunately, I stumbled upon the Math Assistance Center early on. With all the help I’ve received from my professors and the staff in the Math Center, I’m now solidly on the road to becoming an engineer and I couldn’t be more grateful for all the help I’ve received.”

While at COD, Smith completed summer research on simulating the high strength fields of accelerator magnets at Fermilab and presented his results in Fermilab poster session. The next year, he finished a second internship at Fermilab, where he continued to work on RF accelerating cavities.

Smith transferred and earned his bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is now in the master’s program. While at UIUC, he participated in a summer internship at NASA through the Space Communications and Navigation program at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. His work group focused on signal processing and communications experiments, and they would frequently conduct experiments on SCaN Testbed. 

“This is essentially a software-defined radio laboratory attached to the outside of the International Space Station,” he said. “Researchers and engineers on the ground can schedule time on this lab to conduct communication and propagation experiments in space.

“I worked on applying adaptive digital predistorion to a communication link. Once the proof of concept was working, we started writing an implementation in System Verilog. Finally, after it was all working on the ground, we transmitted the files to SCaN Testbed and implemented the process on a space communication link. The code is still up there, controlling equipment flying through space. That just blows me away. It feels like I was a part of something much larger than myself.”

The next year, Smith returned to the Glenn Research Center for six months. He wrote a paper detailing the work being done in the field, and it was accepted into the Cognitive Communications with Aerospace Applications workshop hosted by NASA, during which Smith presented findings.

Working for NASA was a dream realized for Smith, and it was his years at College of DuPage that helped him set goals and move toward accomplishing them.

“I want to say thank you to all of the professors and staff in the Math Assistance Center. Cheryl Martin is running an amazing program there, and any student taking a math class who isn’t taking advantage of this is missing out on a huge opportunity,” he said. “I’ve been very successful in my math and physics classes but I couldn’t have done it alone.”

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