Driven by curiosity

Graduate student Bryan Chantigian shares his NASA internship experience and interest in electrical engineering

Over the course of the last year, ECE master’s program student Bryan Chantigian had the opportunity to complete an internship with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program. Titled SCaN Internship Project (SIP), it also provides interns with mentoring, networking, and skill-building opportunities that are tailored to individual participants. 

As a SCaN intern, Chantigian was charged with  exploring techniques to improve the efficiency of optical amplifiers to reduce power consumption on board spacecraft. His contribution is particularly significant given that currently, the efficiency of optical amplifiers which are crucial to optical communications is low. His work, which focused on reducing losses and increasing the efficiency of optical communications systems, will be used by NASA’s engineers to develop next-generation optical amplifiers. Needless to say, Chantigian found the experience interesting and exciting, and helped him tangibly connect his dual passions: electrical engineering, and astrophysics. 

Path to electrical engineering

On his interest in electrical engineering: "The 'why' has always kept me motivated."

Going back to his school years, Chantigian remembers that as a middle schooler, he had the opportunity to visit an area high school’s robotics team. He was mesmerized by what he saw, and recollects spending his entire bus ride home thinking about robots, circuits, and all things electrical. Sure enough, when he entered high school, he joined the robotics team. After some careful exploration of the mechanical and programming areas of the team, he settled into what he always suspected was the best fit for him: the electrical and electronic aspects of building a robot. Chantigian recalls spending most of his free time during those years building circuits, trying to enhance them, getting them to perform increasingly complex actions, and troubleshooting issues. As a college student, his choice of major then was an obvious one: electrical engineering.  

What Chantigian has always found fascinating about electrical engineering is the opportunity it presents to improve, innovate, and problem solve. And the last has been a motivational force for him: he has been driven by the need to understand why something works the way it does, or perhaps does not. In his own words, The “why” has always kept me motivated.”

As a NASA SCaN intern

Chantigian set about his NASA internship assignment by analyzing currently available optical amplifiers, including related commercially available devices such as laser diodes and laser diode drivers. He then performed a review of existing research on optical amplifier efficiency, and finally culled novel methods and their pros and cons into a final report for engineers at NASA. Chantigian was mentored by engineers Rafael Garcia and Scott Merritt. (Project description provided in the write up by Korine Powers and Danny Baird in Signal, the SIP magazine.)

Commenting on Chantigian's work, mentor Garcia says, "He has made remarkable progress on sequential pump battery design and energy harvesting techniques. His work will drive the future of NASA optical communication in space.”

Astrophysics and electrical engineering

Gravitating towards NASA for an internship is not surprising given Chantigian’s interest in space. He fondly remembers peering up at the night sky through his father’s telescope. (It is something he still does when he is home with his family, and enthusiastically recalls bundling up last winter while his father adjusted the telescope so they could all gaze up at the perfect alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus). A few semesters after his arrival at the University, he soon figured that he could combine his electrical engineering major with his other enduring interest, astronomy. 

Within electrical engineering, Chantigian is particularly keen on physics-based topics such as optics, photonics, RF, and solid state devices, interests that have supported him through his internship and Pathways experience. Completing his senior honors thesis under the guidance of Professor Joey Talghader, Chantigian earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering with a minor in astrophysics in spring 2021. 

Pathway to NASA

On the humanity of looking to the stars: "Space exploration embodies human curiosity."

After a successful two semester internship experience with NASA, Chantigian is back with the agency again. This time, he is working with them through the Pathways program. Pathways interns are hired based on their potential and the alignment of their skills and interests with NASA’s needs. The program prepares participants for a career at the agency, and is a direct channel to full time employment after graduation. Chantigian describes his experience as a Pathways participant as more akin to that of an employee: he has greater independence and more responsibility within the project he is tasked with. 

In his new role, Chantigian is working as an analyst on the Dragonfly program, NASA’s quadcopter mission to Titan. While he finds the project itself exciting and fulfilling, he is also motivated by the people he works with. He says, “The experience is supercool. Everyone there is super passionate about what they do and eager to share what they know.”

Although always interested in all things space, Chantigian’s experience working with professionals who are immensely driven by what they do, has made him even more keen on pursuing a career where he can directly contribute to space exploration. As he sees it, space exploration is deeply connected to everything we do here on Earth. It is intrinsically human to explore, and go beyond apparent boundaries. Besides, the inventions and  innovations we undertake for space travel can have an impact on our lives here on Earth. Emphasizing his point, Chantigian says, “Space exploration embodies human curiosity.” And curiosity is the cornerstone of our research and academic missions here at the University.  

Why the U?

On choosing to attend the University: "I love how large it is, its location, and the people here."

For Chantigian, the decision to come to the University was an easy one. He fell in love with the large campus, the curricular and extracurricular opportunities it offered, and the sense of community he could find despite its size. 

“I love how large it is, its location [being in the city], and the people here.” 

He is also deeply appreciative of the various groups he is part of. Chantigian’s friends are the roommates he met as a freshman. He looks to his classmates for motivation and inspiration, and his student group buddies have helped him stay on task and keep pushing forward. These somewhat different groups are his support systems; they have helped him explore, engage in new opportunities and activities, and most importantly provided him with community. 

Reflecting on his time here

Chantigian's advice for students: "Every experience is a learning opportunity. As a society we place a lot of value on getting it right. We need to place more value on learning."

As he closes in on the remaining requirements for his master’s degree, Chantigian thinks about his years at the University, his experience as a student, and intern. His advice for incoming students: “Learn from everything. Every experience is a learning opportunity. That’s true not only of academics but of life in general. As a society we place a lot of value on getting it right. We need to place more value on learning as a whole.”