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Advisory Board

James Ainsworth

Managing Director of Engineering , Collier Aerospace – HyperX Software

James Ainsworth is the director of engineering services for HyperX – Collier Aerospace Corporation. He earned his B.S. in aerospace engineering from North Carolina State University and received an NC Space Grant scholarship during his studies there.

Since joining the company in 2009, Ainsworth has focused his structural engineering career on performing analytical trade studies and has developed analytical solutions for many aerospace and space launch companies, including NASA, Blue Origin, SpaceX, TSC, Bell, Bombardier, Boeing, Gulfstream, Embraer and many others. Ainsworth has authored and presented several technical papers and provided many training courses focused on structural engineering for metal and composite airframes. In 2013, Ainsworth received the NASA NESC Engineering Excellence Award for his work on the Orion crew capsule. 

Since 2016, Ainsworth has managed a team of engineers that perform certification analysis on aircraft and spacecraft structures. In 2021, Collier Aerospace opened an engineering office in Raleigh, North Carolina, for which Ainsworth is the managing director.

Tarek Abdel-Salam, Ph.D

Associate Dean for Research, Director for the Center for Sustainability, and Professor, East Carolina University

Tarek Abdel-Salam is associate dean for research in the College of Engineering and Technology at East Carolina University, where he is a professor of mechanical engineering, and directs the Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering. Abdel-Salam has been with ECU since 2003 and holds over 34 years of experience as a thermal engineer and educator. 

Abdel-Salam has published research papers on various topics such as virtual engineering laboratories, recruitment to STEM fields, and distance education. He maintains membership in multiple professional engineering societies including ASHRAE, SAE, ASME, and AIAA. Abdel-Salam is active within numerous organizations, serving as the chair of the AIAA Terrestrial Energy Systems Technical Committee, and the vice chair of the NC Space Grant Advisory Board.

Abdel-Salam holds a master’s in mechanical engineering from Cairo University and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Old Dominion University.

Katie Caruso

North Carolina Center Lead, NASA DEVELOP National Program, NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information

Katie Caruso is the North Carolina Center Lead for the NASA DEVELOP National Program and is based at NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) in Asheville, NC. Katie received her BSc in Biology with a minor in Religious Studies from the University of North Carolina Asheville. At UNCA, Katie researched how southern Appalachian plants and fungi respond to environmental change, facilitated plant education workshops with the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, and interned as a science writer with the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC).

After her undergraduate degree, Katie restored coastal and nearshore habitats on the North Shore of O‘ahu as an AmeriCorps member. Following her AmeriCorps term, Katie returned to Asheville to support conservation efforts in Western North Carolina and joined NASA DEVELOP in the fall of 2021 to conduct ecological research using remote sensing data. Katie participated in two NASA DEVELOP projects, which identified suitable habitats for Venus flytrap in North and South Carolina and modeled the dispersal of spongy moth in New England forests, before becoming a Center Lead with NASA DEVELOP.

In her current position as NASA DEVELOP’s North Carolina Center Lead, Katie works with community organizations to build research projects studying climate and drought phenomena through the collaboration between NASA, NOAA NCEI, and the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). Katie also supports interdisciplinary teams of early and transitioning career scientists at NASA DEVELOP to conduct applied Earth science research. Katie is interested polar ecology, scientific storytelling, and intersections among science, religious traditions, and contemplative practice, and she intends to attend graduate school to study astrobiology and life in extreme environments. 

Darshan Divakaran

Senior Manager, Strategic Innovation and Partnerships and North Carolina Hub Lead for AFWERX, United States Air Force

Darshan “Dash” Divakaran is an aerospace intrapreneur and technology evangelist with expertise in uncrewed aviation, aviation development, geospatial analysis, emerging technologies, and program management. His areas of expertise in uncrewed aviation also includes Uncrewed Aircraft Systems (UAS), Uncrewed Traffic Management (UTM) Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) and related emerging technologies. He has led efforts to work with the public and private sector to develop, integrate and manage national programs and initiatives. He is also an FAA certified commercial pilot with multi engine rating and holds a FAA part 107 remote pilot certificate. 

Currently Dash is the Senior Manager for Strategic Innovation and Partnerships and North Carolina Hub lead for AFWERX, the innovation arm of the Department of Air Force. In his role he leads efforts to promote innovation and integration through interagency, federal, state, and academic partnerships. He is also the airspace integration and industry engagement lead on the AFWERX Agility Prime program, the non-traditional program to accelerate the commercial market for advanced air mobility vehicles.

Srinath Ekkad, Ph.D.

Department Head for Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, NC State University

Srinath Ekkad has served as the department head for mechanical and aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University since 2017. An avid educator and researcher, Ekkad has published a myriad of research papers on topics including primarily thermal management, energy concepts, propulsion, and advanced diagnostics.  

Previously, Ekkad was a Rolls-Royce Professor for Aerospace Systems at Virginia Tech, associate vice president for research programs and director for the Rolls-Royce University Technology Center for Advanced System Diagnostics. Ekkad has received several awards for his contributions including the VT Alumni Award for Excellence in Graduate Advising (2014), VT Dean of Engineering Award – Research Excellence, (2012), and ASME Bergles-Rohsenow Young Investigator Award in Heat Transfer (2004).

Ekkad holds a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, a master’s in engineering from Arizona State University, and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University.

Christine Hendren, Ph.D.

Interim Vice Provost for Research & Innovation, Appalachian State University

Christine Hendren serves as Interim Vice Provost for Research & Innovation at Appalachian State University, where she is also a Professor in the Department of Geological and Environmental. In those roles she grows enterprise-wide research capacity, with a focus on building transdisciplinary and multi-sector teams to address complex global sustainability challenges.

Her research and research-supporting practices focus on developing and applying methods for co-creation and integration of knowledge across boundaries to enable research teams to address complex global challenges. Domain spaces include convergent topics such as forecasting environmental and health implications of nanotechnology, sustainability in agricultural systems, understanding interkingdom communication in the rhizosphere, and supporting sustainable innovation by integrating rich yet disparate environmental and built environment datasets. She founded and co-chairs INTEREACH (Interdisciplinary Integration Research Careers Hub) in 2016, a thriving community of practice for research professionals whose expertise is integrating across boundaries. 

Dr. Hendren holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from Duke University, a professional master’s in Environmental Analysis and Decision Making from Rice University, and a B.S in Industrial Engineering from Texas A&M University.

John Kiss, Ph.D.

Professor and Dean of College of Arts and Sciences, UNC-Greensboro

John Kiss is the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of biology at UNC-Greensboro. Over the years, Kiss has instructed 15 different courses, mentored 64 independent research projects by undergraduates and served as a major professor for 14 master’s students, 8 doctoral students, and 7 post-doctoral scholars. Kiss also has published over 125 peer-reviewed papers on topics including gravitational and space biology of plants. 

Kiss has been a space biologist working with NASA and ESA. Since 1995, he has been the principal investigator for 8 projects launched into space. In 2014, Kiss received the NASA Outstanding Public Leadership Medal “for exceptional contributions in spaceflight research in the fundamental biology of plants in support of NASA’s exploration mission.”  Kiss has received the International Cooperation Medal from the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), and asteroid Kiss 8267 was named in his honor.

Prior to his appointment at UNC-Greensboro, Kiss served as dean of the Graduate School at the University of Mississippi for 4 years. Kiss previously was on faculty at Miami University for 19 years where he was a university distinguished professor, and chaired the botany department. 

Kiss holds a bachelor’s in biology from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in botany and plant physiology from Rutgers University.

Joseph C. Knight

Director & CEO, Hands On! Children’s Museum
President, North Carolina Science Network

Joseph Knight is a lifelong learner, informal STEM educator, and nonprofit museum executive with 20 years of experience within children’s museums and science centers throughout North Carolina. Knight currently serves as the Director and CEO of Hands On! Children’s Museum, located in Hendersonville. He also serves as the President and Board Chair of the North Carolina Science Network, a state-wide collaborative of over fifty science museums, children’s museums, nature centers, planetariums, and other STEM allied organizations located from the mountains to the coast—serving all 100 North Carolina Counties.

Over the years Knight has served in a variety of leadership and STEM engagement roles at KidSenses Children’s Museum, the Rocky Mount Children’s Museum and Science Center, and the Imagination Station Science Museum in his hometown of Wilson. He is also affiliated with a variety of STEM organizations including Association of Children’s Museums, Association of Science and Technology Centers, Lawrence Hall of Science, NASA Museum Alliance, National Institute for Museum and Library Services, and the Smithsonian Science Research Institute.

Knight is committed to providing quality informal STEM learning opportunities to audiences of all ages and abilities. In 2020, Knight was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humanitarianism for his efforts to provide world-class informal STEM learning experiences to underserved populations within museum environments throughout North Carolina.

Britt Lundgren, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Physics, UNC-Asheville

Britt Lundgren has been a member of the faculty in UNC Asheville’s Department of Physics and Astronomy since 2016. Her research focuses on the stellar populations and star formation histories of distant galaxies, observed directly through deep space-based infrared imaging, and the evolution of the gas and dust content of galaxies and the intergalactic medium throughout cosmic history. In 2020, Lundgren was named a Cottrell Scholar, a prestigious honor from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA).

Prior to joining the UNC-Asheville faculty, Lundgren held an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship in the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation. In this role, she worked with various federal science agencies on projects aiming to increase participation, diversity, and outcomes for students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Lundgren has additional past experience working as a postdoctoral research associate at Yale University and later as a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Lundgren holds a B.A. in Physics from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Matthew Meyer, Ph.D.

Associate Vice President for Business Engagement, National and International Partnerships, NC Community College System

Matthew Meyer is the current associate vice president for business engagement and national and international partnerships at the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS). Meyer is responsible for a plethora of initiatives including Sector Strategies, Council of Associations for Engagement, Credit for Prior Learning, Latino/Hispanic Initiative, and national certification data project implementation. Additionally, Matt is a trained facilitator for the Talent Pipeline Management and Next Generation Sector Partnerships models of engaging business and industry.

Meyer began his career at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College as chairperson of mechanical engineering technology, later becoming the dean of corporate and continuing education. Meyer served two years as the executive director of BioNetwork, the life science education initiative launched by NCCCS. Meyer also has served as the associate vice president for STEM innovation and strategic planning at NCCCS.

Meyer holds a master’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Dayton, a master’s in bioengineering from Clemson University and a Ph.D. in community college leadership from Old Dominion University.

Jeff Mobley

Vice President, Mechanisms and Motion Systems, Sierra Space

Jeff Mobley is Vice President of Mechanisms and Motion Systems at Sierra Space. He has 29 years of experience related to design, development, fabrication and testing of electro-mechanical systems, including 24 years in the Space industry.

He received a BS in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina State University and in 2021 was inducted into the NCSU Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Hall of Fame. He serves on the technical advisory board of the American Gear Manufacturers Association (AGMA) Aerospace Gearing Committee.

His projects include mechanisms in support of space programs such as Mars Perseverance Rover, Mars Curiosity Rover, Global Precipitation Measurement, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Solar Dynamics Observatory, Mars Phoenix Lander, and the Sierra Space Dream Chaser™ spaceplane. These custom designed products perform functions such as antenna pointing, solar array positioning, robotic arm articulation, flight surface control, wing folding, camera pointing, and descent braking.

Mobley has authored and presented multiple technical papers for the Aerospace Mechanisms Symposium. He is a co-author on U.S. Patent, #6667564 “Mechanically-Commutated DC Motor”.

Kuldeep Rawat, Ph.D.

Chair of the Department of Technology and Director of Aviation Science Program, Elizabeth City State University

Kuldeep Rawat is the Thorpe Endowed Professor and Dean of School of Science, Aviation, Health and Technology at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Dr. Rawat holds an MS in Computer Science, MS in Computer Engineering, and a Ph.D. in Computer Engineering from the Center for Advanced Computer Studies, University of Louisiana-Lafayette (ULL). At ULL he conducted research into video compression techniques for applications in aerial surveillance platforms used for monitoring wetlands. He has more than twenty years of combined Industrial and Academic Research and Teaching experience. Rawat is an International Air Transportation Association (IATA) certified Aviation Management Professional. He has also received professional certifications in Aviation Safety Management and Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Data Analyst from IBM, and Applied Data Science from MIT.

Rawat provides leadership and manages the School’s administrative operations. The School of Science, Aviation, Health, and Technology (SAHT) is home to four academic departments and fifteen academic programs:  Natural Sciences (Biology BS/MS, Chemistry, and Sustainability Studies); Health and Human Studies (Pharmaceutical Sciences, Kinesiology, Psychology, and Social Work); Mathematics, Computer Science, and Engineering Technology (Mathematics BS/MS, Computer Science, Engineering Technology); Aviation and; Emergency Management (Aviation Science, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, and Emergency Management), which includes over sixty full-time and temporary employees. In addition, the SAHT houses Aviation Science, the institution’s signature program. The SAHT also houses the Center for Excellence in Remote Sensing Research and Education, NC Math/Science Enrichment Network (NC-MSEN), and ECSU’s Khan Planetarium.

Rawat has served as the Principal Investigator/Project Director on multiple grants, including National Institute of Justice (NIJ), US Department of Energy, the US Department of Transportation, NC Division of Aviation, NASA, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Hewlett-Packard Foundation, and the Golden LEAF Foundation. He has secured over $8 Million in external funding to support research, teaching, program development/enhancement, and outreach projects at ECSU.

He also serves as the Director of ECSU’s signature/flagship program in Aviation Science. As the Director of state’s only 4-year collegiate aviation program, he is responsible for strategic planning, conducting aviation program needs assessment, purchasing aircraft, flight simulators and ATC lab equipment, avionics trainers, laboratory upgrades and developing a strategic plan to grow and sustain state’s only four-year aviation education program. Recently, Dr. Rawat led the efforts to establish a BS degree in Unmanned Aircraft Systems program at ECSU. He also led the efforts to secure Aviation Accreditation Board International (AABI) accreditation for the Aviation Science program and Accreditation Board for Engineering Technology (ABET) accreditation for the Engineering Technology program.

Michael Rice

Senior Technical Writer, KBR

Michael Rice was born and raised here in North Carolina. He has worked in satellite mission operations for over 20 years. Michael received his undergraduate degree in Chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and later earned a M.S. degree in Technology Systems from East Carolina University. He began his career as a Space Systems officer in the U.S. Air Force, working with the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska. After a four-year stint in the military, he became a contractor at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, MD.

Michael has worked with a myriad of different unmanned space programs, including the Relay Mirror Experiment (RME), NASA Small Explorers Program (SMEX), Hubble Space Telescope (HST), Landsat-7, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), to name a few. He has worked in all phases of the spacecraft mission lifecycle, from pre-launch requirements development, integration and test (I&T), Launch and Early Orbit (LEO), and normal mission operations. Currently, Michael works as a contractor for KBR in their Science & Space Business Development unit, as a senior technical writer.

Jennifer Stalls, EdD

Director of STEM Education, Pitt County Schools District

Originating from Eastern North Carolina, Jennifer Stalls has cultivated a career underscored by a steadfast commitment to education and an unwavering passion for science. A graduate of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Jennifer emerged with a profound appreciation for the transformative impact of education. Subsequently, she pursued her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Middle Grades Education at East Carolina University, where her academic trajectory was further enriched by her participation in the North Carolina Space Grant RESTEP to STEM pre-service teacher scholarship where she studied the relationship between science and language.

Serving as a middle school science educator in Pitt and Greene counties, she fostered a profound love for science among her students. In 2015-2016, she was selected for a Kenan Fellowship where she focused on pioneering citizen science initiatives, showcasing a commitment to innovative educational methodologies. Jennifer attained a Doctorate in Education in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, enhancing her knowledge in curriculum development and pedagogical strategies.

Aurora Toennisson

Ph.D. Candidate, Perera Lab at North Carolina State University

Aurora’s dissertation research focuses on plant adaptation to spaceflight.  In support of this research, she received two NC Space Grant fellowships for projects focused on plant response to simulated microgravity and the effects of spaceflight-isolated microbes on plant growth.  As part of her PhD, she has gained several years experience as a teaching assistant for general botany and plant molecular biology lab classes.  Previously, Aurora received a BS in Biology with a focus on Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a MS in Entomology from the University of Tennessee.  Her MS research focused on the community ecology of urban ants and the nesting behavior of the pest ant species Tapinoma sessile. Prior to returning to grad school for her PhD, she worked for a couple years on an organic farm and several more as a research associate in an agricultural entomology lab.  In the latter role, she supported research on pests and beneficial insects associated with North Carolina specialty crops.  

Aurora is an avid supporter of science communication and outreach.  She blogs about entomology and gardening at The Biologists Garden and space biology at Sprouts in Space. She coordinates outreach events for the North Carolina Entomological Society, the Orange County Radio Amateurs, and the NCSU Biology Maker Group.  Her volunteer work as a middle school First Lego League coach is what originally inspired her to pursue space biology.  Upon graduating, she hopes to find work where she can do meaningful research related to plants and microbes, continue formal or informal science teaching, and remain engaged with the space biology community.