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Aaron Young NSF
May 11, 2022

Student Spotlight: Aaron Young NSF Fellowship Award

Written By: Caitlin Scott


Continuing congratulations to Mechanical Engineering undergraduate student Aaron Young on his 2022 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship!

Can you tell us about your research area(s)?

My research interests relate primarily to autonomous vehicles and autonomous robots; in particular, I’m interested in utilizing simulation to inform the development of algorithms to be used for autonomous agents. I’ve spent the majority of my last four years as an undergraduate researcher in the Simulation Based Engineering Laboratory (SBEL) under Professor Dan Negrut. Most of the work SBEL does relates to using simulations to solve engineering problems, where most of the work propagates into the simulation engine Project Chrono. My main contributions to the lab revolve around the autonomous vehicle thrust, where we utilize Project Chrono’s vehicle module to simulate autonomous convoys, experiment with human-AV interactions, and develop an autonomous scale vehicle.

In addition to SBEL, I’ve led Wisconsin Autonomous (WA) for the past three years, where we focus on student competitions such as the AutoDrive Challenge and the Indy Autonomous Challenge. Much of the work I have done in Wisconsin Autonomous is directly applicable to SBEL, and vice-versa. Augmenting my classroom experiences with extracurriculars such as WA and SBEL was imperative to my success in acquiring internships and getting the GRF.

I will be attending MIT in the fall as a PhD student in the Mechanical Engineering school, where I plan to continue along a similar path as I’ve found at UW-Madison. I’m still looking to find an academic advisor, but I hope to work in a lab in CSAIL that works in the autonomy realm.

What can you tell us about the award and where this can help take you?

At MIT, all graduate students are guaranteed funding, so the funding I’ll receive from the fellowship will offset the costs which would have been taken from my research lab. It should be easier then to work on projects I’m interested in rather than on projects that I’m being funded by. Having funding is also appealing to professors because it eases the overhead in taking on new students. From my perspective, it feels good to be grouped with other students (past and present) who have received the award because many are doing really amazing things!

I’m still unsure whether I want to stay in academia or work in industry. I’m excited to start my PhD program because it will give me an opportunity to focus on research and work in a different environment and with different people from what I’m used to. I hope to continue the work I’ve already done at UW-Madison and remain connected with Prof. Negrut on future projects.

What insights do you have for other UW ME students interested in applying for NSF funding?

The application process is somewhat intimidating and slightly different from most other grad school applications. The main components consist of a three page Personal Statement where you outline your intellectual merit and desire to make a broader impact, and a two page Graduate Proposal to showcase your ability to generate thoughtful research. As an engineer, writing is always a scary thing to think about, so I worked closely with Prof. Negrut and other grad students in SBEL to solidify my ideas and write the essays. I wouldn’t have received the award without their guidance. I definitely recommend seeking help from experienced researchers in the field you’re interested in, mainly because people like them will be the ones deciding whether you get the award or not. Having them give you the green light is a good sign of success. Further, you need strong letters of recommendation, so connecting with these types of people, either through research at UW or in industry is important.

In general, I found that as an undergrad, I hit my stride when I stopped stretching myself too thin and began focusing on the things I think are important to my goals; I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, so I focused on research and acquiring internships to help me stand out from other applicants, and I left the student orgs that didn’t align with my future ambitions. I think it’s definitely quality over quantity when it comes to resumes, and it’s most important to spend time on the projects/experiences where you’ll learn the most. Surround yourself with people smarter than you and ask a lot of questions!

The most important component to my success as an undergrad was working with Prof. Negrut and ME PhD student Asher Elmquist. They invested a lot of time and effort into me, and I hope to pay that forward to my future colleagues! Their impact on me and my future is immeasurable.