Imagine wanting to become a rocket scientist – a real rocket scientist. Now imagine having wanted to become a rocket scientist from your earliest childhood memories. Needless to say, fulfilling such a dream would require a lot of dedication, smarts, and planning ability. Well, meet Sophia Bergmann, soon to graduate from UF with two degrees – a BS in physics and a BS in aerospace engineering. She exemplifies those three prerequisites in spades and is well on her way to reaching her goal of helping to develop our nation’s next generation of spacecraft propulsion.
Sophia was born into a science and technology-minded family. Her mother is an RN and her father holds a doctorate in physics from FSU. Reading NASA media packets and watching Star Trek (WARP drive!) were a staple of her growing up in the panhandle city of Niceville, Florida. Her family would regularly gather around the TV for space shuttle launches. She excelled at academics (4.7 GPA), sports (State medalist in discus and shotput), and community service, which made Sophia a strong prospect at any number of prominent universities. She systematically whittled down her choices by looking for schools which were simultaneously strong in aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, and physics. The University of Florida, with nationally recognized programs in all three areas, quickly became her first choice. Since UF is also a participating school in the National Merit Program, Sophia received a Benacquisto Scholarship for a full ride.
Once at Florida, Ms. Bergmann settled in to implement a five-year strategy to obtain both her physics and engineering degrees. This necessitates the student complete all of the requirements for two distinct colleges – The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. Each fall and spring she would concentrate on her regular coursework, and every summer she would seek an internship elsewhere, where she could obtain grad-school-type research experience and build up a robust network of contacts in her field. The engineering aspect of her studies would teach her how to take scientific knowledge and apply it to real-world situations. The physics side would expose her to the scientific thought process that might help her gain additional insight on how to develop new, original propulsion technologies. The internships proved very helpful in getting hands-on experience. Over four summers, she interned at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, Georgia Tech’s High Power Electric Propulsion Lab, the Air Force Research Lab’s Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland AFB, NM, and Texas A&M’s Plasma Dynamics Modeling Lab.
As for the internship process, Sophia notes that applying for them helped her focus on what she hoped to accomplish, though getting rejection letters can be a bit hard on one’s ego – which happened with most of her corporate internship applications! That said, she feels internships and summer research opportunities are certainly worth the effort and can be highly transformative. For example, the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Georgia Tech piqued her interest in electric propulsion systems, which are basically variations on the ion thrusters that NASA used on the DAWN and Deep Space 1 probes to explore the asteroid belt. Using nuclear or photovoltaics as their power source, these systems operate at low thrust for prolonged periods of time to achieve large changes in velocity. The big advantage is that they consume less than 10% of the mass of fuel as a chemical propellant rocket to achieve the same change in velocity. Electric propulsion offers one of our best hopes for ferrying humans to Mars in the next twenty years. Count Sophia in for that kind of project!
Ms. Bergmann has also made the most of her time at UF in other ways. She immediately joined the local chapter of the Society of Physics Students (SPS) and rose to become its president. Says she, “it’s an instant way to gain friends and helps build community. I highly recommend it.” She especially enjoyed outreach activities to encourage young women to consider careers in science and engineering. Through the aerospace engineering department, she was able to participate in an invitation-only behind-the-scenes tour of the Kennedy Space Center, hosted by UF graduates now working at the Cape. All this hard work and experience has paid off. Sophia has just received the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Excellence Award and was inducted into the prestigious engineering honor society, Tau Beta Pi.
Where to next? Sophia has decided to enter the doctoral program in the department of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, where she will study under the guidance of Professor Benjamin Jorns in the Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory. The UM lab is part of a NASA and Air Force team that recently broke the thrust record for an ion propulsion system at 5.4 Newtons. (Not quite WARP drive, but it’s a start.) Sounds like Sophia Bergmann, under her own power, is heading in the right direction.