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ECE student receives scholarship, internship with NASA

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By Susan Kantor, ECE ILLINOIS
June 24, 2009

  • Sumit Dutta will work as an intern for NASA for his third time.
  • He has worked on redeveloping the NASA Eclipse Home Page.
  • Dutta also is an undergraduate researcher in ECE Assistant Professor Eric Pop's group.

Sumit Dutta
Sumit Dutta

Next summer, ECE junior Sumit Dutta will have the unique opportunity to work as an intern for NASA. Dutta is a recipient of a 2009 NASA Aeronautics Scholarship, one of only 25 students to receive such an honor this year nationwide. The scholarship provides a stipend for two years’ worth of tuition, as well as an internship with NASA.

Although he does not yet know where he will be or what sort of research he will do, Dutta does have some notion of what to expect. This will in fact be his third time as a NASA intern. The summer after his sophomore year in high school, he interned at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. There, he worked on redeveloping the NASA Eclipse Home Page with his mentor, astrophysicist Fred Espenak.

Dutta returned to Goddard the summer before attending the University and again worked with Espenak, developing applications for the Eclipse Home Page. He created a map application that can generate eclipse patterns from five millennia. He also conceived and created “SKYCAL,” which can generate the localized date and time for eclipses, moon phases, meteor showers and other sky events.

“That second summer is when I think I made a pretty big impact on NASA and all the people who use the information from NASA,” Dutta said. “Working with NASA certainly helped me realize the scientific value and public interest that Internet applications generate. I thought that really was a cornerstone for me, because it made me connect my interest in science to all my Web interests.”

Dutta’s interests weren’t spurred only by NASA. He also interned at the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC, for two summers. There, he first experienced computer programming in creating a program to find minor planets such as asteroids from a catalog of millions of stars.

“Just as NASA provided me the connection between the Web applications and pure science, the Naval Observatory provided me with an even closer connection between the programming and astronomy,” Dutta said. Those experiences have encouraged Dutta to continue applying his programming knowledge to discoveries in space science.

When Dutta arrived at the University of Illinois, he again found a new area of interest. Eager to become involved in undergraduate research, he joined ECE Assistant Professor Eric Pop’s group soon after arriving on campus. Pop’s group studies nanoscale devices, energy transfer on nearly atomic length scales, and ways to build more energy-efficient electronics. Dutta began by learning about the group’s research, but soon became involved in the lab, writing LabView code and assisting with measuring and analyzing carbon nanotube transistors.

“Sumit is probably one of the best undergraduate researchers we have at the University of Illinois,” Pop said. “What really separates him from the rest is his enthusiasm and his dedication. He is obviously very good technically, as well. But he goes beyond being technically good. He’s people good.”

Inspired by what he was learning in the lab, Dutta decided to take ECE 440: Solid State Electronic Devices with Pop last fall, at the beginning of his sophomore year. In the meantime, he continued his research in Pop’s lab with ECE graduate students Albert Liao and David Estrada. His work became an integral part of the group’s research, and his findings will be presented at the Device Research Conference (DRC) this summer. 

“Going to the lab has always been attractive since there is always something new to learn from the students, and the facilities allow us to test the limits of human knowledge, if not of our own knowledge,” said Dutta.

So when he began filling out the application for the NASA scholarship, he had to communicate how every interest he had developed over the years could be geared toward an influential career. He wants to continue researching energy-efficient electronics and eventually create a sustainable lighting source.

“I think that would be a good pathway for me to go down: continue my research, probably work at NASA and try to do electronics research there,” Dutta said. “If I find a good idea, I’ll try to make it happen.”

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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