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Intellect

BYU Ph.D. grad, NASA research fellow leads by example

From age 13, Alden Yellowhorse wanted to be an engineer. After transferring to BYU for his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, going on to get a Ph.D. was not his expectation. However, the decision to get his Ph.D. has opened doors for personal, professional and academic growth – including an ongoing research relationship with NASA.

During his first summer as a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student, Alden taught STEM classes at Utah State Eastern campus to junior high students from Utah’s Navajo reservation. Being half Navajo himself, this experience meant more to Alden than just a unique way to get involved in the community.   

“I understand where they’re coming from,” said Alden. “Very few of my family members have gone to college so when I was younger, it was nice for me to see people like me that had excelled and made it to college.” 

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Following his summer teaching, Alden has spent the rest of his summers at various NASA research institutions.

For the past three summers, Alden has been able to do his own research, as well as NASA research, throughout the country. He was able to work on various projects at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the NASA Ames Research Center and the Langley Research Center. 

“Working side by side with NASA engineers has been a great learning and collaborative experience for me,” said Alden. “They have been able to give me feedback and ideas for my work, and then I have been able to help them on theirs.”  

Alden’s research worked to develop methods to transition paper origami patterns to myriad materials. These methods have various applications such as creating solar panels for a spacecraft, minimally invasive surgery, outdoor equipment and medical implants.

Throughout his program, Alden worked closely with mechanical engineering professor Larry Howell in his lab. Howell was the one that introduced Alden to this topic of origami research.

“Alden is a great student to work with. He is very intelligent and hardworking, and he works well with other people,” Howell said. “His outstanding analytical and theoretical skills have been necessary in the research done in the lab.”  

This research, which was funded through a NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship, was just accepted for publication in Scientific Reports, a top-tier journal associated with Nature.

After graduating with his Ph.D. this month, Alden will move to the Netherlands where he will begin a post-doctoral position at Delft University of Technology, a world-renowned university in this field. During his two years there, he will work with teams doing spacecraft research, and other research on micro-mechanisms.  

After all is said and done, Alden's eventual goal is to become a professor.  

“Everything I’ve experienced thus far is just a step along the way,” said Alden. “Teaching is really what I’ve always wanted to do. And who knows, maybe I’ll end up back here in the Rocky Mountains.”  

 

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