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Democratizing innovation: Cadet says Air Force Academy research is for all


Commentary by Cadet 2nd Class Manmeet Pelia

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – My research journey highlights the U.S. Air Force Academy’s best quality: an ability to democratize innovative research.

I am the daughter of an enlisted Airman, parents who did not attend college and who immigrated to the U.S. By age 12, thanks to my dad, I mastered the art of writing enlisted performance reports and vetting every legal document entering my home. Coming to the Academy, I had no idea about the world of academia or inner workings of a research enterprise. It was with the guidance and support of the Academy’s faculty I was able to push myself beyond what I thought imaginable and explore my passions.

So where did my research journey start? Three words: Quad Innovation Alliance. I, a delusional freshman cadet at the time, participated in the only program in the world fostering collaboration between a service academy, a private university, a public college and a community college. The semester internship required me to go to downtown Colorado Springs twice a week and work for Colorado Springs Utilities. I had no car, a 24-credit-hour semester load and no knowledge about the community. Despite the odds and being sent home in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, I worked with amazing people I wouldn’t have met at the Academy, including a retired Army soldier with three children, a journalism major at Pikes Peak Community College who covered the Black Lives Matter movement and a University of Colorado-Colorado Springs student who worked for the National Park Service. Our unlikely team created EnergizeCoS, a high school youth engagement initiative for Colorado Springs Utilities. From the 250 responses we received from high school students, we informed and influenced the company’s decision to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2030, and 90% by 2050. I had never done anything like this before and it was amazing to see our work created an impact on big decisions in the local community. The best part? I consider many members of the Quad lifelong friends.

In 2021, I participated in the Academy’s cadet summer research programs and independent studies to practice finding answers for research questions, a skill I’ve found countless applications for outside the classroom. Not only did the Academy foster my aptitude for engineering, it supported my diplomacy endeavors culminating when I was awarded the critical language scholarship on behalf of the State Department for an intensive language immersion program. Like a crazy person, I spent eight hours in my childhood bedroom on a laptop learning Punjabi five days a week for eight weeks. What I got out of it, though, was confidence to tackle the unknown and push beyond my comfort zone, traditionally the engineering lab, and connect with likeminded U.S. diplomats’ passion for language.

During our second COVID summer in 2021, I exercised my engineering brain by participating in the L’Space Academy – a NASA workforce training program that taught me to write and evaluate technical proposals. I was the first cadet in the program and together with a team of 12 students, I spent 12 weeks writing a technical proposal to improve a new technology called perovskite solar cells. As principal investigator, I led our team in creating a final proposal that won $10,000 from NASA’s Early Stage Innovation grant. This random idea lead to the submission of yet another Air Force Academy patent.

L’Space Academy invited me to my first- ever NASA launch for the Lucy mission, a NASA space probe investigating five Jupiter Trojans – asteroids sharing Jupiter’s orbit. We presented our work to Gen. John Raymond, U.S. Space Force chief of operations.

In January, I was accepted into the International Institute of Astronautical Sciences’ PoSSUM Academy, a citizen-scientist astronaut training program. I spent months with students around the world learning about aeronomy, space flight operations, suborbital research campaigns and bioastronautics. I am planning a microgravity research campaign in October, in Canada, something I would not be able to do without the fantastic PoSSUM-Air Force Academy network.

I’m excited to continue my research journey this summer as the first woman from any service academy to be recognized as a Brooke Owens Fellow, a fellowship promoting women and gender minorities in the aerospace arena. Because of this fellowship, I will work for 10 weeks as an avionics intern for the Hermeus Corporation in Atlanta, Georgia, a startup company creating reusable hypersonic vehicles.

My experience as an Academy researcher has given me the technical expertise to do what I love, the leadership ability and confidence to elevate the performance of my peers. Because of these experiences, I’m excited to serve as the director of USAFA Spark, our campus’ AFWERX-designated spark cell. Using my journey at the Academy and empowering other cadets to innovate for the Defense Department has been the highlight of my cadet career.

The Academy is a premier research institution with 27 research centers, institutes, and countless opportunities for cadets to innovate and explore the unknown with the support of more than 700 faculty members. Our research enterprise is available to all cadets to explore their passions because, at the Academy, we take Air Force Chief of Staff General CQ Brown’s charge to “Accelerate Change or Lose” personally. At the Academy, we accelerate change very well.