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Taking Flight

There are times when Deb Pence, professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University and 2013 Honors College Eminent Professor, has to remind herself that Corey Juarez is still an undergraduate. “He says something,” she says, “and we all say, ‘Good point! Are you sure you’re not a Ph.D. student?’ He is exceptionally sharp.” She then pauses briefly, looking around her sunlit office, leans back in her chair, and continues: “He is just awesome.”

Juarez, a mechanical engineering major in the Honors College (HC), connected with Pence when he was enrolled in her Honors heat transfer course (ME 332H) in fall term, 2013. Pence works with Honors students regularly, teaching classes in the HC at least once a year, “twice a year if I’m really lucky.”

“I was inspired by her teaching methods,” Juarez says, “so I asked her what she was doing in her lab.”

Before coming to Oregon State as a transfer student from Portland Community College in 2012, Juarez worked in avionics retrofitting older aircrafts with newer systems. “That got my wheels spinning,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a technician. I knew I wanted to go back to school, and it was a no-brainer that would be the area to focus in.” He will graduate from Oregon State in March, 2015, and he plans to apply to aerospace engineering graduate programs in the Boston area, where his partner will also be attending graduate school.

“You always hear this story,” Juarez says, smiling, “but ever since I was a kid I really was interested in how things worked.”

In Pence’s lab, Juarez is using that interest to look at more efficient ways to cool electronics, particularly in zero-gravity environments.

“Our defense and space applications all require computers. Things will completely shut down if the computers shut down,” Pence says, “so we need to keep them cool. Problem is, in outer space, if a vapor bubble forms because it gets hot enough, it boils….With no gravity to allow [the bubble] to get off the surface, it acts like a little bit of insulation and gets really hot.”

Juarez is looking at this problem by pulling vapor bubbles through porous material. “He wants to look at what happens to the bubble,” Pence says, “can we predict the bubble size and bubble frequency, how big will the bubbles get under this extraction condition, how frequently they will occur, and can we regulate that with this extraction technique.”

Right now, Juarez is focused on bringing the work to NASA’s commercial parabolic aircraft, known colloquially as the “vomit comet,” Pence says; the aircraft provides “brief periods of weightlessness” to test technologies before they encounter the “harsh environment of space,” according to a NASA press release.

Researchers are advised to have experience with a drop tower — which provides environments close to zero-gravity — before hopping on the free-falling aircraft. So, to prepare, Juarez hopes to spend some time with his heat transfer research over the summer at Portland State University’s Dryden Drop Tower. Then, Juarez just needs NASA to approve his proposal.

Pence is optimistic. Since arriving at Oregon State, Juarez has never submitted an unsuccessful funding proposal. He’s received HC Excellence and Grandma Honors funds and was awarded a grant through Oregon State’s Undergraduate Research, Innovation, Scholarship, & Creativity (URISC) program.

“I said [to him], ‘You do realize I don’t know anyone who has ever hit 100% rate for funding, right?’” Pence says, laughing.

Though Juarez is excited about his future, Pence is disappointed he won’t be staying at Oregon State for his graduate studies. “He’s just phenomenal,” she says. “I am one lucky person.”

By Jessica Kibler

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