From exploring Mars to studying antibiotic resistance in space, UCF graduates are making a difference.

Many engineering, photonics and physics students have taken the university’s slogan “Reach for the Stars” to heart, landing jobs with NASA and commercial space companies in various capacities.

As Space X counts down to its latest launch to the International Space Station today, UCF graduate Luis Zea eagerly awaits. When the dragon capsule returns, it will bring back an experiment he designed that may shed light on what causes antibiotic resistance. Zea, a 2008 UCF graduate with a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, will then study the experiment’s results.

Space provides a unique opportunity to study antibiotic resistance, a fast-growing problem that causes deaths daily, Zea said. According to the National Institutes of Health, 100,000 people died in 2012 because of drug-resistant bacterial infections.

“It has been observed that in space, significantly higher concentrations of antibiotics are needed to kill bacteria,” Zea said. “We are not sure if this is because of biophysical phenomena or because they develop resistance. The phenomenon observed in space might help us figure out not only how to keep our long-term space explorers safe, but hopefully shed some light on the problem here on Earth.”

Zea fell in love with space while looking at the stars from his hometown of Guatemala City. He moved to Florida because he believes the most advanced and promising space-exploration programs are here and he picked UCF because of its close ties to NASA.

While here he took advantage of multiple opportunities. He was involved with the design and manufacture of a project that won 1st place in the Florida University Satellite program competition. He also landed a spot in the simulated Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, where he was an engineer for Crew 65. The station is dedicated to developing the knowledge necessary to explore Mars by mimicking its harsh environment on earth. He also conducted research at the Florida Space Institute, based at UCF. After graduation, he continued working for UCF as a research project manager on a CO2 removal project. He then worked at Siemens Energy Inc. as a heat transfer engineer, leading a multinational team of engineers in the design and construction of a new heat exchanger. He began to pursue his Ph.D in aerospace engineering with an emphasis in bioastronautics at University of Colorado Boulder in 2010. The degree blends engineering and biology.

“I wanted to do my research on something that was not only pushing our boundaries of knowledge, but also that could benefit people on the shorter term. I’m living my dream,” Zea said.


UCF graduate Luis Zea at the simulated Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.

Astronauts aboard the ISS executed his experiment in January and the first set of sample results is scheduled to return to Earth aboard a Space X spacecraft in May followed by a second batch in July.

“My masters at UCF was my first exposure to intense scientific research and it helped me be prepared on the technical as well as on the programmatic aspects,” Zea said.

Zea, who speaks four languages and is a certified lifeguard, also volunteers for the American Red Cross Disaster Action Team and spends hours speaking to children in K-12 about the importance and opportunities available to those who study science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Launching to Mars

Chrishma Singh-Derewa, who holds aerospace engineering and space-systems technology degrees from UCF and is on track to earn another degree in 2014, just landed his dream job. Singh-Derewa this year was named a launch systems engineer for the next mission to Mars called InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport). Derewa is responsible for leading the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena team that’s integrating the spacecraft with the launch vehicle.

InSight is a milestone NASA mission scheduled to arrive on Mars in 2016. A spacecraft will carry a lander to the planet. Once on the ground, the lander will spend two years investigating the deep interior of the red planet to help understand one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science: the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system, including Earth, more than 4 billion years ago.  This mission will allow scientists to drill deep into Mars for the first time.

“Combining guidance from my mentor Dan Britt of UCF Physics with a degree in aerospace engineering and space studies helped prepare me for this very important milestone in my career,” Singh-Derewa said. “I’m proud to be a Knight.”

Like Zea, Singh-Derewa said he took advantage of every opportunity while he was on campus. He went to the Amazon with UCF engineering professor Linwood Jones to conduct ground validation for a joint mission between NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency designed to monitor and study tropical rainfall.  He also helped design the Photon satellite for the Florida Space Institute. He collaborated with NASA, the Florida Space Institute and UCF scientists when designing and building the STARFORM microsatellite. Singh-Derewa also served in various leadership roles with Students of the Exploration and Developments of Space, the International Students Association and as an SGA senator.

Singh-Derewa, continued to seek out opportunities after he earned his first degrees in 2004, which has led to a fruitful career, he said. He’s worked for NASA on several projects from the ISS and space shuttles to program manager at Lockheed Martin providing launch services to many nations around the world from both Kennedy Space Center and the Baikonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. He also worked at Space Systems/Loral making satellites for communication companies like SiriusXM Radio and DishTV as well as running two space-related corporations, Starhunter Corp. and Secondary Launch Services, offering spacecraft-integration expertise.

Chrisham Singh-Derewa

UCF graduate Chrishma Singh-Derewa at Kennedy Space Center.

“It is difficult to express in a few words the depth of gratitude I have for those that help me reach this pivotal opportunity,” he said. “I feel a great deal of responsibility to run a successful and rewarding mission. The knowledge we expect to gain will help extend humanity and ensure our children’s well-being for many generations to come.”