Meet the Microgravity Mountaineers of West Virginia University

This is the second in a series of five articles covering West Virginia University’s Microgravity Research Team whose flight will be taking place this summer. Kerri Phillips has worked with the WVU Microgravity Research Team in the past and is now bringing her experiences to AmericaSpace. 

The West Virginia University Microgravity Research Team was recently accepted to fly with NASA in their Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. These are the dedicated individuals who made it happen.

Aaron Costa (Master’s Student, Electrical Engineering)

Hometown: Lompoc, CA

MRT role: As a graduate student, Aaron is a ground crew member.

His inspiration: Aaron’s father was an electrical engineer and would take him to work as a kid. Aaron’s father showed him the interesting work he did and it inspired Aaron to follow in his footsteps. As he became interested in embedded design, microcontrollers and other small projects, so he pursued undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering, computer engineering, and computer science.

Why he chose to join the MRT: Aaron became interested in the MRT after enrolling in another course in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering – balloon satellites. He became interested in the opportunity to participate in an extracurricular project and has found the experience extremely valuable in that it has exposed him to subjects outside of his immediate field.

Future goal: Aaron would like to pursue a career in industry, specifically in embedded design and prototyping.

Extracurricular: Officer in the Student Partnership for the Advancement of Cosmic Exploration (SPACE) and a member of the Institute of  Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Aaron Deneau (Sophomore, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering)

Hometown: Manassas, VA

MRT role: Flying member or ground crew

His inspiration: Aaron knew as he was entering high school that his interest in math and science would make engineering a good fit for him. He was inspired by the cosmos, and his passion grew as he made visits to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. several times a month. Aaron says, “My fascination with aeronautics and astronautics grew once I joined the WVU organization SPACE, which was a confirmation that I found what I wanted to study.”

Why he chose to join the MRT: “Since coming to WVU, I’ve had role models that encouraged me to do my best and love what I do. All of them were previously on the Microgravity Research Team…I’ve gained invaluable experience being on MRT11.”

Future goal: Aaron would like to work in the aerospace industry on he graduates.

Aerospace extracurricular: Aaron is the Co-President of SPACE and a member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) at WVU.

Carla Feragotti (Senior, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering)

Hometown: Chester, WV

MRT Role: Flying member

Her inspiration: Carla’s brother graduated from WVU with dual degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and once she saw the opportunities afforded to him and the love he had for his job she became more interested.

Why she chose to join the MRT: Carla liked the idea of designing and building an experiment that was selected by the team. It is an opportunity to hone her team-working and hands-on skills, and she is excited about the opportunity to fly in microgravity.

Future goal: Carla plans to pursue a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering at West Virginia University.

Enmanuel Madera (Junior, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering)

Hometown: Oceanside, NY

MRT role: Ground crew

His inspiration: Enmanuel was fascinated with making paper airplanes while he was growing up. This passion developed further when he realized that he wanted to step up to the challenge to design real aircraft. An internship with NASA Langley Research Center working with UAVs added to his experience, and working next to Langley Air Force Base made him realize that he not only has a passion for designing aircraft – he would also like to fly them.

Why he chose to join the MRT: “Going into space is everyone’s dream as a child.” Enmanuel appreciates the layout of the research project, where students have the liberty to propose, design, build, and test a project of their choosing as it is not already predefined.

Future goal: Enmanuel has applied to the Marine Corps. Officer School with aspirations of becoming a fighter jet pilot once he graduates from WVU.

Aerospace extracurricular: Enmanuel is the Public Relations Manager for AIAA at WVU.

Jeremy Pepper (Senior, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering)

Hometown: Charleston, WV

MRT role: Flying member or ground crew

His inspiration: Jeremy has always been interested in medicine and engineering and was particularly inspired to get into the field by his fiancée’s mother, who has a prosthetic leg. He was interested in mechanical engineering and decided to also pursue aerospace engineering for an additional challenge – one that led him to discovering how much he likes astronautics.

Why he chose to join the MRT: Jeremy is motivated to obtain results from this research that contributes to the scientific body of knowledge concerning a microgravity environment. He is also motivated by the opportunity to fly on NASA’s Weightless Wonder.

Future goal: Jeremy would like to work for a company such as Space-X or Boeing. Eventually, he would like to be self-employed.

Aerospace extracurricular: Jeremy is a member of AIAA at WVU.

Darius Reynolds (Junior, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering)

Hometown: Baltimore, MD

MRT role: Flying member

His inspiration: Darius has always wanted to be a pilot so that he could board his own plane and have the freedom to fly anywhere. He went to an engineering high school and was selected to be in a program with Northrop Grumman where he worked with two mentors on a project during the year. At the end of the year, he presented his results to executives and realized how much he loved what he was doing.

Why he chose to join the MRT: Space had always fascinated Darius, and he jumped at the chance to do research on topics involving a microgravity environment. He believes that research outside of the classroom, such as the MRT, provides students with the opportunity to put their knowledge into action. Darius also enjoys the competitive nature of the MRT, where student teams are developing ideas and submitting proposals to NASA for the right to fly their experiment.

Future goal: Darius plans on attending graduate school and is currently researching different institutions.

Extracurricular activities: Darius is a member of SPACE, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

Caleb Rice (Senior, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering)

Hometown: Middleway, WV

MRT role: Flying member

Inspiration to choose a dual major: Caleb chose to pursue dual undergraduate degrees at WVU to be more competitive when applying for jobs. The dual major combined with unique research opportunities at WVU such as the Microgravity Research Team and the Industrial Outreach Program in Mexico, allows undergraduate students to gain more knowledge and experience in the field.

Why he chose to join the MRT: Caleb saw a promotional for MRT and became interested in the opportunity after transferring to WVU in Fall 2010. He was able to join the team as a volunteer member in 2010, and has become a flying member of this year’s team.

Future goal: Caleb plans to work for an international firm so that he can travel and work on collaborative projects around the world and make a positive difference in society.

Alex Squires (Senior, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering)

Hometown: Martinsburg, WV

MRT role: Flying member

His inspiration: Originally interested in Forensics, Alex decided to spend time reviewing other majors when aerospace engineering caught his eye. He was particularly drawn to the curriculum of the space aspect of the major and has been happy with his decision to pursue it.

Why he chose to join the MRT: Alex was drawn to the MRT because of the opportunity to conduct an experiment in microgravity as well as researching and building an experiment from the ground up. He has had a positive experience being able to apply the knowledge and skills he learned at WVU to a real-world application, and he has enjoyed seeing his work pay off in more than just receiving a grade.

Future goal: Alex plans to join either the Air Force or Navy as an officer and become a pilot.



Miranda Straub (Junior, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering)

Hometown: Morgantown, WV

MRT role: Ground crew

Her inspiration: Miranda has always had an interest in space and has ambitions to become an astronaut. She chose to major in aerospace engineering with aspirations of improving the future of space exploration and believes it will be a very exciting and rewarding effort.

Why she chose to join the MRT: Miranda wanted to get the experience of taking a design course at WVU – where students not only plan and design, but construct and perform experiments. The rare opportunity to fly in a weightless environment also drew in this aspiring astronaut.

Future goals: Miranda plans to attend graduate school and find time to travel.


Nathan Weese (Junior, Mechanical Engineering)

Hometown: Middlebourne, WV

MRT role: Ground crew

His inspiration: Nate grew up working on projects with his father, a mechanic for 20 years at a local plant. His passion for mechanical engineering stemmed from this experience, where he was able to learn from his father’s expertise and ability to fix almost anything.

Why he chose to join the MRT: “I think being a part of the space program would be a very exciting experience and I really admire the men and women who go into space and risk their lives for the human endeavor of knowledge…The best analogy I can think of is that it is like climbing a mountain. The climb is long and hard, but the view at the top is worth it.”

Future goal: Nate plans to either pursue a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering or pursue a career upon graduation.


Dr. John Kuhlman (Professor, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering)

Hometown: Originally from Cuyahoga Falls, OH (has lived in Morgantown, WV the past 27 years)

MRT role: Dr. Kuhlman has been advising the WVU Microgravity Research Teams for the past 12 years. Dr. Donald D. Gray of the WVU Civil and Environmental Engineering Department co-advised the group for the first 8 years.

Service and outreach: Dr. Kuhlman is the faculty advisor for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society. Through these organizations, he and his students assist with fundraisers to benefit the Morgantown, West Virginia, Ronald McDonald House Charities and help a local bike drive/repair for Positive Spin.

How the first WVU MRT came about: “The first WVU team was initiated by the efforts of one highly motivated WVU aerospace engineering undergraduate, who more or less ‘recruited’ me to advise the team. He also recruited three additional undergraduate aerospace engineering students to form a team that met the NASA requirement of at least four team members to become the four flyers.”

On the importance of the MRT: “I have observed over the years that almost all of the past participants in the WVU Microgravity Team have benefitted significantly in participating in the project, usually in several different ways. First, and most obviously, they get the opportunity to apply and synthesize much of the classroom knowledge that they have been busy obtaining through the normal required classes in their curricula, to develop an actual physical experiment that is of interest to NASA. There are also several other benefits including: the opportunity to gain experience reading technical research literature at a level above typical undergraduate work; build, test, and improve the experiment thus improving their ‘hands-on’ skills; developing interpersonal and team-building skills; developing technical writing skills; developing presentation skills; developing some awareness of the necessity of budget, time-management, and scheduling efforts; and developing an awareness of the need for additional effort in interesting future generations in careers in STEM disciplines. All in all, it has been and continues to be a wonderful journey, to see these very capable students grow and develop, improving both their demonstrated capabilities, as well as their self-confidence and vision for their careers.”

NOTE: The eleventh team member is Stewart Harvin.

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