A $10,000 idea: JSNN student wins NASA prize

Posted on January 26, 2023

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Nanoscience doctoral candidate Kyle Williamson says it’s only now just sinking in that he’s getting a chance to help NASA solve a problem. 

“When they announced it, I was really in shock for the next five days,” says Williamson.

In December, Williamson was told that the idea he developed with a team of students across the country was the top choice in the NASA Proposal Writing and Evaluation Experience (NPWEE). The win meant that his team would receive $10,000 to continue developing their idea to decrease the impact of dust on mechanical systems used in space. 

Small dust making a big difference

Williamson’s proposal focuses on the impact of dust on the lubrication of mechanical systems, like those needed to launch a rocket. 

“Lubricants are really key to increasing performance and one thing that decreases lubricant performance is dust,” Williamson says.

His team’s idea is to add ionic liquids, or liquid salts, to space lubricants in order to deal with charged particles like dust.

Williamson says there isn’t much known about how ionic liquids can impact dust mitigation. Now, with the $10,000 award and help from experts in the field, Williamson and his team will hopefully find out. Their goal is to finish the project in six months. 

“Writing and communication have never really been my strong suit, but now I know I can convince people and be succinct with my writing. I can tell you the problem, what I think we can do to address it and convince you that if you give me the money, we can get this done.”

Kyle Williamson, JSNN Nanoscience doctoral candidate
Man types on a laptop at his desk

NPWEE is a 12-week academy giving students experience in the NASA proposal writing and review process. But, Williamson says the actual proposal writing time was around two weeks. 

“It sounds short, but a portion of the work you do in the early stages of the program allows you to quickly create the proposal,” he says. “The process involved making a shell document from the solicitation, writing the draft proposal, having the team review it, and editing the proposal to the final product.”

Finding new problems to solve

It has been a positive learning experience for Williamson, who has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UNC-Chapel Hill. After his undergraduate studies, he worked for three years and then came to the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN)

“I liked the way the nanoscience curriculum was described and I didn’t want to get hyper-specialized. I wanted to get a broad depth of various different fields,” says Williamson. “So, I talked to Dr. Dennis Lajeunesse, the director of graduate studies at JSNN, and I really liked that interaction.”

Lajeunesse says he’s thrilled Williamson chose nanoscience and won the competition, but he isn’t surprised.

“Kyle really is a leader at JSNN,” Lajeunesse says. ”He serves as a great example for students of what you can do if you put your mind to something, be persistent and work hard.” 

Man sits a desk with only upper body showing
Williamson says once the project is finished, it could get shelved or NASA could potentially continue the research and even expand it into a small business venture.

While Williamson’s NPWEE project is not directly related to his doctoral dissertation, his interest in the program started with the JSNN’s “Science Communication” course, where he learned different funding agencies (like NASA) can require different information for proposals.

“Going through this proposal writing and evaluation experience acted as a vehicle for me to learn how my nanoscience doctorate might fit into the missions of NASA,” says Williamson.

For him, it was refreshing to think outside of his PhD work and the NASA recognition is a satisfying bonus.

“I like finding new problems to solve,” he says. “Part of my rationale for leaving industry to come back to school was gaining recognized experience in solving complex problems.”

UNC Greensboro has given him the foundation to not just problem-solve, but come up with solutions for issues beyond this world.

Story by Avery Craine Powell, University Communications

Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications

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