Engineering student aims to solve problems, broaden field
Christopher Carter’s curiosity leads to NASA grant
By Annika Dahlgren
Earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering is no easy task for anyone, but it is even more challenging if you don’t like lab classes.
“I’ve never enjoyed lab classes because I find them monotonous and boring,” says University of South Carolina senior and Honors College student Christopher Carter.
Maybe Carter just needed a quicker pace or more challenging assignments — because what he does like is solving problems, and that’s helped him find his home in the lab.
“I have always wanted to know how to make things function or how they are made,” Carter says. “When I was learning how to drive a car, I couldn’t help but wonder how it worked.”
Carter’s love of tackling problems inspired his current research in metals and powder bed fusion (PBF) and led him to NASA’s National Space Grant College and Fellowship Project. The project, which involves a national network of colleges and universities, allows students to participate in NASA’s aeronautics and space projects, providing fellowships and scholarships for students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“The research I do allows me to tackle my own questions and problems in a new way,” Carter says. “It is so much fun to challenge myself like this. This grant gives me the opportunity to help with manufacturing technology and still get involved with South Carolina’s local communities.”
My goal is to be a part of designing new and innovative technologies that help others, but I also want to be one of those who guides the next generation of engineers to even newer fields of possibility and inclusion.
Giving back to his community has always been a part of Carter’s goals. From his Eagle Scout project where he taught nearly a dozen students how to work with wood, to his high school role encouraging students to learn computer-aided design and manufacturing, to his work at UofSC as a tutor and class mentor, the Hillsborough, North Carolina, native works to help others experience the same opportunities that he has been given.
And, as an LGBTQ+ person of color, Carter knows that his work helps represent diverse engineers everywhere.
“Engineering hasn't usually been considered a field with a large LGBTQ representation,” Carter says. “Organizations such as Out in STEM promote the greater inclusion of queer people in STEM, but there is a long way to go. I'm proud of who I am with a CEC bumper sticker on my car and a rainbow ribbon on my backpack. In a similar way, the [grant] gives underrepresented students the chance to work on beneficial research while inspiring the next generation of engineers from all backgrounds. My goal is to be a part of designing new and innovative technologies that help others, but I also want to be one of those who guides the next generation of engineers to even newer fields of possibility and inclusion.”
Carter’s research focuses on the surface roughness of metal parts produced on a laser PBF machine. The goal is to improve the control and customization of the surface roughness across any localized area, which is vital to increasing the efficiency of the metal parts used for rocket nozzles and turbines.
“Normally at the undergraduate level, students do not have the type of patience, time and understanding it takes to know what the scientific advancements of research are,” says Lang Yuan, associate professor of mechanical engineering and Carter’s research supervisor. “Chris has the characteristics to be a good researcher, and he is a very bright student to have in the lab.”
While Carter’s grant has been slightly impacted by COVID-19 — he will begin to utilize the funds at the start of the fall semester — he has thought of other ways to continue his research during the summer months. He sought out the university’s McNair Junior Fellows Program to provide extra funding to test simulations of his research. The program provides enginneering students with a faculty research mentor up to $3,000 of research funding. It is designed to enhance the career growth and development of undergraduate students through hands-on experiential learning, innovation and research.
As the president of the UofSC chapter of SME (previously the Society of Manufacturing Engineers), Carter has been exposed to various areas of engineering, experience that has prepared him for this opportunity. Heat transfer, led by Jamil Khan, department chair and professor of mechanical engineering, stuck with Carter. Khan also wrote one of Carter’s letters of recommendation for the NASA grant.
“Chris is very responsive and intelligent, and he would ask relevant questions,” Khan says. “He is mature in his thinking process as a researcher and as strong as some of the doctorate students. It is a pleasure to have students like him. Writing the letter of recommendation was my duty, but it was easy, because I know him and what he is doing.”
Carter is finishing up his bachelor’s degree in spring 2021 with a long-term goal of pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering.
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